If Daniel Kehlmann has a speciality, it’s artful portraits of fraudsters, hypocrites and con artists. His debut, Beerholms Vorstellung (1997), published when he was twenty-two, tells the story of a theologian turned magician with a knack for cheating at poker. The postmodern short-story cycle Fame (2010) teems with mistaken identities and pathological impostors. And the novel F (2014) deals with a trio of brothers consisting of a secretly atheist priest, an art forger and an investment scammer. Kehlmann has also written the screenplay for a forthcoming adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, one of postwar fiction’s most famous tales of deception.
It is only appropriate, then, that for his latest novel, Kehlmann has turned to the archetypical joker of German literature, Tyll Ulenspiegel. Notorious for outsmarting people by taking figures of speech literally and slipping away before he gets into trouble, the historical Ulenspiegel is supposed to have lived in Lower Saxony in the 14th century, working as a travelling entertainer. Tyll, which has sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany since its publication in 2017, removes the titular hero from late medieval times and places him in one of the most brutal periods of European history, the Thirty Years’ War. From 1618 to 1648, as Catholics fought Protestants for religious dominance and famine and pestilence beset central Europe, an estimated six million people died, including roughly a third of Germany’s population.
Tyll is an absorbing and, for a story about a prankster, remarkably sincere novel. As war sweeps over Germany, empirical fact is infiltrated relentlessly by superstition. A slow trickle of rumours carries knowledge of current and no longer current affairs to the peasants. ‘Leaflets came even to us,’ recalls an