Howard W. Campbell Jr. is a loyal Nazi. But he’s also an American spy. But he’s responsible for the deaths of millions. But he saved millions of lives. And he can’t decide what holds more of an impact. Or if he cares.
Vonnegut himself states in the introduction that Mother Night has a clear moral and it’s one of his only books he could say that about definitively. I think that’s true, and the moral he gives it (we are what we pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be) is very true of the story, but I also believe this book says about ten or twelve other things really well. Everything from the sorts of thoughts we’ve heard spoken aloud many times over, like war benefits no one and good people die on both sides. To perspectives on hate speech that have a unique resonance here, particularly when it’s stated that blind faith isn’t necessarily good.
All of this seems particularly important in the world of literature when you consider two things: this was first published in 1961, and it’s still relevant today. That’s no small feat. Before true bitterness had set in toward war, before people began to consider the lives of the people they went to war against, Vonnegut was writing about it. He was writing about someone with things to lose, hard choices to make, maybe even possessing a questionable moral center and yet he was likeable. He wasn’t writing about a war that was muddied and gray. He was writing about a war that appeared perfectly black-and-white and revealing shades of gray that leave you feeling almost shaken.
Even now, this is dangerous ground to tread. Making your protagonist a Nazi, the people helping him white supremacists and Soviet spies. He pushed the envelope in fascinating ways, crossed all kind of lines, and the results are nothing short of fantastically entertaining. Because like most of Vonnegut’s books, it’s funny, it’s sad, it has a lot to say, and it does all of it very well.