This account of the seventeenth-century vagabond performer and trickster Tyll Ulenspiegel begins when he’s a scrawny boy growing up in a quiet village. When his father, a miller with a secret interest in alchemy and magic, is found out by the church, Tyll is forced to flee with the baker’s daughter, Nele. From the internationally best-selling author of You Should Have Left.
... a deeply imagined early-seventeenth-century world ... We are offered vivid descriptions ... Kehlmann, a confident magician himself, plays his bright pages like cards. But he has a deeper purpose, which is revealed only gradually, as the grand climacteric of his chosen war steadily justifies its presence in the novel ... A remote historical period, rollicking picaresque episodes, tricksters and magic, ancient foggy chronicles—all the dangers of the historical novel are here ... Kehlmann is a gifted and sensitive storyteller, who understands that stories originate within communities, and that such stories are convincingly dramatized when the novelist selflessly inhabits his characters’ perspectives ... The book’s narrative is daringly discontinuous ... Despite the grimness of the surroundings and the lancing interventions of history, the novel’s tone remains light, sprightly, enterprising. Kehlmann has an unusual combination of talents and ambitions—he is a playful realist, a rationalist drawn to magical games and tricky performances, a modern who likes to look backward ... is vivified by the remoteness of its setting and the mythical obscurity of its protagonist, which oblige Kehlmann to commit his formidable imaginative resources to wholesale invention, and to surrender himself to the curious world he both inhabits and makes. At once magister and magician, he practices the kind of novelistic modesty that can be found at the heart of classic storytelling.
... it’s possible to read Tyll with pleasure while knowing next to nothing about the history. This is because it first of all succeeds as a rip-roaring yarn ... this book artfully conceals its own sophistication ... It’s only on careful inspection that you see how cunningly each episode fits with the others ... historical fiction, but its strangeness and energy give it the flavour of a speculative or post-apocalyptic novel ... plunges a modern reader into an astonishingly violent and dirty alternative reality ... Kehlmann renders this world with an extraordinarily delicate and vivid touch, fixing on just those details that seem to capture the differences from our own ... a very funny novel, too, with a Monty Pythonesque fascination for absurd hierarchies, court protocol and the status games played by egotistical participants at peace conferences ... In this bleak world, the figure of Tyll himself is a tonic both to the audiences he entertains and to the reader. He stands at an angle to his era: in it, but never fully of it, looking at everything with a beady, mocking eye, like an avatar for a sceptical modern sensibility. And whereas the Tyll of the original German chapbooks is a one-dimensional provocateur, in the novel he becomes a fully realised character whose ability to see through the cant of his era has been bought at terrible personal cost ... The book also stealthily and elegantly feeds you just enough exposition to whet your curiosity about the historical figures and events it depicts ... It’s a testament to Kehlmann’s immense talent that he has succeeded in writing a powerful and accessible book about a historical period that is so complicated and poorly understood. He never pushes the parallels between present and past, but there are many ways in which this strife-torn Europe, fractured by religion, intolerance and war, is a reflection of our own times.
... darkly brilliant ... In Kehlmann’s hands, Tyll, based on the German folk hero better known here as Till Eulenspiegel, also has a compelling personal story, one he alternately reveals in jest and dances away from ... merciless, following its protagonist through a war torn continent terrorized by lawless mercenaries and equally bloodthirsty religious zealots ... Like one of Tyll’s japes, the core story takes some unraveling ... an episodic and nonlinear approach, and Ross Benjamin’s translation gives a clarity to the individual voices that render their stories — tragedies, for the most part — profoundly humane.