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Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

December 31, 2013


Howard Campbell, Jr., is an American-born playwright who moved to Germany as a child. The story is told by the narrator from his jail cell in Israel, where he is awaiting his trail for war crimes; during the Nazi rise to power and World War II, Campbell hosted a German radio show and was one of the main mouthpieces for Nazi propaganda. The thing is, he was actually a U.S. spy, and his broadcasts held within them coded messages to the Allies. But the other thing is, only one U.S. agent knows Campbell’s true identity, and that agent has gone missing. So Campbell sits in his cell, awaiting his trial.

This is one of those novels that flies by so quickly and is so entertaining as it goes that you don’t realize how good it is until it sinks in after. True to Vonnegut’s reputation, this 1961 novel is funny, poignant, heady and silly all at once. But at its core is the notion that our identity is defined by our actions, regardless of our motives. We all act outside of ourselves from time to time, play a part, pretend to be something we’re not, but isn’t acting just another type of action?

This all begins to sink in for Howard after the war, when he is approached by various people who were motivated by the words he said over the radio and who used his propaganda to further their cause. Only none of the people are good people, none are the kind of people Howard would have wanted to motivate. Stripped of his intent, his undercover backstory, the vicious ideas he spouted over the airwaves were just that—ideas. Big, powerful, deadly ideas.


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