Kurt Vonnegut is one of those tragicomic writers that can leave you reeling. Mother Night was never on my must-read list, although I’ve read about it many times. Reading about a novel isn’t the same as reading it, of course. I picked it up in a used bookstore earlier this year when I didn’t want to walk out empty handed. I go into such stores with a list and try to limit myself to it. If they have nothing on the list, I try to find an author I know. Since I’ve read several Vonnegut novels, I have an idea of what I might find. This one was pretty bleak, though, but then the subject suggests as much. Those critics that say it’s funny are made of sterner stuff than yours truly, I guess.
The story is the account of a Nazi propagandist who’s actually an American spy sending encoded messages through his radio broadcasts. Throughout the novel he’s conflicted because he wants to be left out of the business of war, and yet he’s aware of the potential for evil on both sides. It’s a chilling book to read in the light of Trump because American nazis feature pretty prominently in the plot. Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is on everybody’s hit list—American Nazi haters/hunters, Russian Nazi haters/hunters, and Israeli Nazi haters/hunters, and even on his own hit list. His role in the war made him look like a Nazi. Vonnegut has some profound things to say, such as: “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”
And this: “Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.” The book was published before I was born, and that took place about six decades ago. The set-backs we’ve seen since then make this one of Vonnegut’s most disturbing books. I have no doubt that he was a haunted man. Like many who’ve been through war, he has neither luxury nor appetite for politicians and the immoral games they play to retain power. Mother Night deals with evil and its ambiguity. And the sad fact that as much as two people love each other and want to separate themselves from the troubles of the larger world, it’s simply not possible to do so. The reasons for this are far too obvious but since we have difficulty seeing the obvious, novels like this are necessary.