Thursday, February 06, 2020

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll, a darkly humorous picaresque of the Thirty Years' War

A bestseller in Germany, Kehlmann’s newest novel convincingly sweeps Tyll Ulenspiegel, the classic itinerant trickster from German folklore, ahead from medieval times to the seventeenth century and the Thirty Years’ War.

Injecting gleeful dark humor into a setting that manages to feel both fantastically dystopian and historically grounded, the irresistible story highlights the chaotic devastation of the era, during which millions across Europe died, and shows how a prankster like Tyll hardly has a monopoly on foolish behavior.

Some of the book’s eight non-chronological, interlinked episodes are told, in part, from Tyll’s perspective, while in others he appears as a minor character. He survives a rough childhood (and emerges changed after being forced to stay alone in the forest overnight), sees his miller father betrayed by witch-hunting Jesuits, trains as a performer, becomes court jester to the deposed Winter King and Queen of Bohemia, and more.

Kehlmann pokes fun at Germany’s language and traditions as Tyll entertains and insults people across the social spectrum, from royalty to laborers. Indeed, Tyll’s unique position lets him interact with a variety of folk, enhancing the scope of this picaresque tale.

English-speaking readers may not recognize all the historical characters, but no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy Tyll’s adventures.

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll, his second historical novel (the first was Measuring the World, 2006) will be published by Pantheon next week in the US.  The translator is Ross Benjamin.  I wrote this starred review for the Jan. 2020 issue of Booklist.

The Thirty Years' War (1618-48) doesn't figure in much English-language fiction.  For other examples of novels with this setting, see Laura Libricz' guest post, Writing Novels about the Thirty Years' War, and my review of Heather Richardson's quietly devastating Magdeburg.

Read also Daniel Kehlmann's recent interview with the New York Times.


  1. I'm often curious about the historical fiction that is being published in other languagess.

    1. It's very popular in Germany from what I understand. Much of it isn't translated into English. Wish there were more translations.

  2. I am intrigued! My husband and I were very taken with Babylon Berlin on Netflix, which I believe was based on a triology of very popular novels in Germany. I tried to read the first in the triology and could not get going. I will give this a try. Thanks!

    1. That's disappointing - often it's the case that the books are better than the film. I've been hearing good things about the Netflix series. Thanks for the recommendation!