You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mother Night

Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night is a short novel told from the point of view of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a fictional American writer who wrote and broadcast Nazi propaganda during World War II. Campbell's narration switches between historical scenes and recent scenes when he is in an Israeli prison awaiting trial for war crimes.

Campbell tells how as a young playwright living in Germany he became involved with the Nazi party and an American intelligence agent recruits him to send secret messages to U.S. agents in his broadcasts. While publicly he is a famous Nazi, privately he knows he is doing important work for the German resistance and providing critical intelligence to the U.S. Yet he is only known as a Nazi to the whole world except for the man who recruited him as a spy. His private self and public self are diametrically opposed. This concept is strengthened when his privacy is broken and he becomes adored by a despicable white supremacist and his hateful cohorts. The supremacists laud him for the very acts he is most ashamed of, and he has to ironically endure their praise for his despicable acts.

The theme of dual identities is also played out in Campbell's neighbor George Kraft. Kraft is really a Soviet spy who outs Campbell's identity. Campbell is also reunited with his long lost wife Helga, but then finds out she is really Helga's younger sister Resi. In the end he is left alone, wondering about his fate, when he finally receives a letter from his intelligence contact confirming that he worked as an American spy.

This novel presents an interesting dilemma. What if the person the world knows you as is different than your true self. Vonnegut in the introduction says the moral is: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Vonnegut plays with the theme in his usual darkly humorous way. Campbell is hounded by his public deeds. The book is funny, but not as funny as some of Vonnegut's other works. The concept seemed a little thin for a whole book, though Vonnegut does well with it. B


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