Friday, May 3, 2013

Will the Real Howard Campbell Please Stand Up?

Mother Night

by Kurt Vonnegut

Published by Dial Press

4 Out of 5 Stars

When most people think of Kurt Vonnegut, the novels Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle immediately come to mind.  It's a shame that more people aren't familiar with Mother Night, a novel in which Vonnegut explores the nature of moral ambiguity and what high-minded ideals we sacrifice on the altar of war.  It's a skillful blend of Vonnegut's trademark dark humor and philosophical musings about human morality as observed through the lens of war.  To put it simply, this is some good stuff.

Sitting in an Israeli jail and writing his memoirs, Howard Campbell awaits trial for war crimes as a Nazi in World War II.  As Howard himself says, "I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination" (1).  And this is the root of Howard's problem:  he has no true identity.  As he ruminates on his past, we see how the apolitical Howard was drawn into events that eclipsed the simple life he longed to live as an artist writing plays for his muse and wife, the lovely Helga. 

Howard's situation is a unique one.  An American who moved to Germany as a child and seamlessly assimilated into German culture prior to any rumblings of war, Howard makes the perfect candidate for an American spy.  However, to remain above suspicion, Howard must align himself with the Nazi cause by pretending to be a Nazi propagandist, eventually becoming the voice of the Reich through his radio broadcasts.  Through a series of coughs, sneezes, and sniffs, Howard sends coded information out to the Americans at the same time he spews vile invective against the Jewish people.

So what's the problem?  He was a good guy, right?  That's how it would normally be perceived, but as Vonnegut cautions, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be" (v).  Maintaining this dual identity weighs heavily upon Howard in the years after the war which robbed him of everything:  his family, his friends, his art, and his Helga.  Howard excelled as a propagandist--so good, in fact, his father-in-law tells him that Howard, not Hitler and not Goebbels, convinced him to become a Nazi.  Howard's American handler even claims Campbell "was one of the most vicious sons of bitches who ever lived" (188).  Knowing that it was his words and his voice that convinced so many to hate in the name of God is a guilt that Howard can never alleviate, especially given that his communications with the Americans never took the form of words.  He never knew what information he was passing on to the Americans, nor what, if any, good came from it.  In the end, he can never be certain if the good he did outweighed (or at least balanced out) the evil his words inspired in the hearts of men.  The question is, do pure motivations absolve heinous outcomes?  As Howard's past begins to catch up with him, he must confront these questions and try to determine who Howard Campbell has become in the shadow of war. 

I think what is most intriguing about the novel is that Howard Campbell is the ultimate unreliable narrator.  A man who is skilled with words and at shaping the perceptions of others, it's important to remember that, in this metafiction, it is Howard Campbell writing his own life's story.  Even in the end we cannot be certain whether or not we come to know the real Howard Campbell as the resulting narrative may be Campbell's masterwork of propaganda--rewriting his own history with an eye to posterity.  Howard Campbell may be a fiction created by the man himself, a constantly shifting personality recreating himself to fit the times in which he lives.  After all, we become what we pretend to be.

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