Friday, October 16, 2009

Mother Night, a book by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)

Mother Night is partly a war story, and a spy story (with the syping done during the war), but is more than that. It does not do much about fighting, or about combat, more about the life of a playwright who lives a double life as a spy, and ends up at the end of the war as a shell. The book is a depiction of the plight of the person who ends up with a double identity at the end of the war, a spy who survived the war (not something that a lot of spies did), who feels that he is nationless now, and cannot find anything worthwhile to have as a means of living (the one true love he had, his wife, died during a war battle). In the end, you end up with a person who has no will to live. Part of the message of the book is 'you end up being what you pretend to be', and and hence people should be very careful about whatever they try to become.

The story (written in first person) is about this guy called Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American citizen who moves to Germany after World War 1. He stays on in Germany after Hitler comes to power in 1933, and since he is a playwright, he continues to write plays. He associates with members of the Nazi Party, and cares for 2 people - his plays, and his wife Helga (also the actress of his plays). Soon, he has an encounter that sets the stage of the remainder of his life. He meets with a man called Frank Wirtanen, from the US War Department (the US Government did not have a separate spy agency at that point of time), who asks him to become a spy of the US. Campbell refuses, but Frank tells him to think it over.
As the war starts, Joseph Goebbels is the propaganda minister for the Nazis, the one who turned the art of propaganda into a convincing weapon; part of Goebbels assignment is to convert enemies to their cause, and Campbell becomes a part of that effort, rising in esteem and becoming more and more allied to the effort. He would be reviled for his role as a loyal supporter of the Nazis, and criticized as a war criminal. However, Campbell is also a spy for the US, working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Service - the agency that later became the foundation for the CIA), passing on messages through his speeches; however, Campbell does not know the content of the messages he is passing.
However, in the middle of the war, he gets a real shock, when his wife Helga is presumed dead when she was caught in a camp (where she was entertaining German troops) which was over-run by the Soviet Army. Later, near the end of the war, he has a slightly unpleasant conversation with his father-in-law, in which his father-in-law basically tells him that he always suspected that Campbell was a spy, but he was good at his propaganda work that it over-shadowed everything else he may have done. When he is captured by US forces, he gets released due to the efforts of Wirtanen.
Campbell moves to New York City, living a lonely life without any adventure, until there is a confluence of events. He is sought by a Soviet agent looking to re-build his career, by a white supremacist, by the FBI, by the sister of his wife, and by Nazi hunters. He however is almost beyond caring.
Eventually, there is a sequence in which he gets caught by Nazi Hunters, and taken to Israel. What happens to him, to a person who is beyond caring, but who was not a war criminal, but instead a spy who was very effective.

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1961

No comments: