Published by Random House on 5/11/1999
Genres: Literary Fiction, Satire, War Fiction
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Whilst awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, Howard W. Campbell Jr sets down his memoirs on an old German typewriter. He has used such a typewriter before, when he worked as a Nazi propagandist under Goebbels. Though that was before he agreed to become a spy for US military. Is Howard guilty? Can a black or white verdict ever be reached in a world that's a gazillion shades of grey?
Wow! Kurt Vonnegut remains a wonderful writer and storyteller in my book. I started reading Vonnegut’s work because of a Criminal Minds episode where Emily and Morgan bring up Kilgore Trout, and I decided to read Slaughterhouse-Five. While Slaughterhouse-Five is impressive, I wish I had read Mother Night sooner.
The story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. goes back and forth between his childhood, his time in the war, after the war when he was in New York, and the present when he’s in a cell in Jerusalem awaiting trial. I was surprised that the setup for the story was more straightforward than I thought it would be. Typically, I have a difficult time when books go back and forth in time, but this one was easy to keep up with and kept everything straight.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr. himself was an interesting character. He readily admits to the guards that what he did was wrong, fully acknowledges his actions during the war, and doesn’t shy away from those actions in his testimony. Because that’s really what Mother Night is the testimony of Campbell. When he includes the biography of Reverend Dr. Lionel Jones, he says at the end that he had the biography to contrast him against someone who is is ignorant and insane. That the Nazis were the same as Jones, yet, he still followed their orders. So, it’s an interesting contrast to Campbell’s character. Campbell admits he did wrong, but he also doesn’t care that he did wrong either. His broadcasts and writing reached people everywhere, so much so that they tried to help him from being captured by Israel. Obviously, we’re not supposed to like Lionel Jones, but I keep going back and forth on whether I like Campbell even. But, of course, this is the point. Campbell comments on people who believed him, “say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile,” which points to many of the novel’s themes. Vonnegut tells us in the introduction that the theme is we are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be. But other themes are present in the line about unquestioning faith, and that is how easy it is for someone to brainwash someone to believe in something wrong or amoral. Not having the ability to think critically and continually question what’s in front of us is a mistake, and that is why we’re not supposed to like or dislike Campbell because this whole story comes from him. We all tell a story with us as the heroes; even when we are in the wrong, we try to lessen the burn we turn it into something positive or a learning experience.
The ending of the novel was interesting. If you want to read the book, skip this part, as I will spoil the ending. On the one hand, it felt appropriate that Campbell was willing to hang himself to pay for his sins during the war. At this point, he saw how far-reaching his broadcasts and editorials were and how much damage he incurred because of them. But on the other, it feels a bit like a cop-out. Yet, if he doesn’t hang himself, he would probably be pardoned since his Blue Fairy Godmother sent a letter confirming that Campbell was a spy. But I don’t know what the appropriate punishment should be. What I do know is that this book will stay with me for years!