Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

February 18, 2020

He’s a trickster, a player, a jester. His handshake’s like a pact with the devil, his smile like a crack in the clouds; he’s watching you now and he’s gone when you turn. Tyll Ulenspiegel is here!

In a village like every other village in Germany, a scrawny boy balances on a rope between two trees. He’s practising. He practises by the mill, by the blacksmiths; he practises in the forest at night, where the Cold Woman whispers and goblins roam. When he comes out, he will never be the same.

Tyll will escape the ordinary villages. In the mines he will defy death. On the battlefield he will run faster than cannonballs. In the courts he will trick the heads of state. As a travelling entertainer, his journey will take him across the land and into the heart of a never-ending war.

A prince’s doomed acceptance of the Bohemian throne has European armies lurching brutally for dominion and now the Winter King casts a sunless pall. Between the quests of fat counts, witch-hunters and scheming queens, Tyll dances his mocking fugue; exposing the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools.

As a book reviewer, I’m an incredibly lucky chap. Every so often I’ll receive a book that steadfastly refuses to be pigeon-holed into any one category. Something so distinct, so idiosyncratic that you can only ever refer to it in the singular. Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann is a perfect example of exactly this. It’s a reimagining of a 15th century story featuring a roguish gentleman by the name of Tyll Eulenspiegel.

Tyll remains an enigma throughout. There is an ambiguity to the character that you are either going to wholeheartedly embrace or it will drive you completely mad. Is Tyll a genius or a mad man? Are there dark magical forces at work or is Tyll just an expert at making people face up to the harsh realities of their lives? I know there will be some readers that won’t be a fan of this approach but personally I loved it.

I’ve been pondering the best way to describe this character to those who are unfamiliar. The closest, more well-known example I can come up with, is another fictional rogue and teller of tall tales, Baron Munchausen. It should be noted however, that Tyll’s first appearance in literature does predate the Baron’s quite considerably.

The plot is liberally sprinkled with historical figures who Tyll finds himself rubbing shoulders with. Put it this way, I find myself far better informed about the Winter King of Bohemia and his wife, Elizabth Stuart, than I did prior to reading. Tyll swims in and out of the narrative as the Thirty Years War unfolds around him.

It feels like Tyll is more than just a character in the novel. He is there in some form or another on every page. There are stories where Tyll barley appears, but his presence is always felt. Tyll challenges pomposity wherever he finds it. From self-important local officials, to crowned heads of state, no-one is spared his barbed tongue. Tyll acts as a mirror to everyone he meets, reflecting back the inequalities of the age. The fact he does that in such a deliciously snarky way is just an added bonus. Everyone needs to be taken down a peg or two from time to time and Tyll is just the person to do it.

A small word of advice, the chapters of Tyll’s life are not told in a linear fashion so attention is definitely required at all times.

I’m reliably informed that Netflix are currently working on a production of Kehlmann’s novel. I’ll keep my eyes out for that. If the book is anything to go by a television adaptation promises to be something extraordinary.

Part morality play, part social commentary Kehlmann’s fantastical fiction may be set five hundred years ago but still manages to be completely relevant today. The tall tales of Tyll Ulenspiegel are an enticing mish mash of adventure, fable and political thriller. It really is quite unique and utterly wonderful.

I felt my music recommendation to accompany this novel had to be something suitably grandiose and gothic. Something that Tyll would approve of. I decided the soundtrack to The Brothers Grimm by Dario Marianelli fits the bill perfectly.

Tyll is published by Riverrun imprint of Quercus Books and is available now. Highly recommended.

One Comment

  • Kaleo Staszkow October 3, 2020 at 6:46 am

    Also highly recommended for listening: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche), Op. 28. By Richard Strauss. Look for the Decca 1976 recording by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I’d never heard of the merry prankster except as the subject of this unforgettable Strauss tune. So glad I stumbled across The Eloquent Page* and this review. Can’t wait to read the book!

    *Long live Marcel the Cat!

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