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The New York Times Best Historical Fiction of 2020
The Guardian's Best Fiction of 2020
Thrillist's Best Books of the Year
Daniel Kehlmann transports the medieval legend of the trickster Tyll Ulenspiegel to the seventeenth century in an enchanting work of magical realism, macabre humor, and rollicking adventure.
Tyll is a scrawny boy growing up in a quiet village until his father, a miller with a forbidden interest in alchemy and magic, is found out by the church. After Tyll flees with the baker’s daughter, he falls in with a traveling performer who teaches him his trade. As a juggler and a jester, Tyll forges his own path through a world devastated by the Thirty Years’ War, evading witch-hunters, escaping a collapsed mine outside a besieged city, and entertaining the exiled King and Queen of Bohemia along the way.
The result is both a riveting story and a moving tribute to the power of art in the face of the senseless brutality of history.
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
The latest from Kehlmann (Measuring the World), is a rollicking historical picaresque that follows the legendary trickster, acrobat, juggler, and jack-of-all-trades Tyll Ulenspiegel as he and his company make their way through a 17th-century German countryside gutted by the Thirty Years' War. After his father, a miller in a small village, is executed by the Jesuits for heresy (courtesy of an unusually sympathetic hangman), the young Tyll escapes with his adopted sister, Nele, and becomes pupil to the wandering (and treacherous) entertainer Pirmin. Tyll's ensuing adventures unfold over the course of eight distinct episodes resembling folktales, some of which put the canny Tyll in the foreground, while others feature him only as a witness to the main action. In this manner, readers meet the fat count Martin von Wolkenstein en route from the Viennese court in the thick of battle and encountering a slyly mocking Tyll in the forest; next, Tyll appears in the Hague as the court fool of the so-called "Winter King" Friedrich V and his queen in exile from their kingdom in Bohemia; and two unlikely traveling companions, the great mathematician Adam Olearius and the occultist Dr. Kircher (who is searching the land for dragon's blood in order to cure the plague), find themselves guests of Tyll, Nele, and Origenes, their talking donkey and these are just a few highlights. Located somewhere between German romanticism and modernism, superstition and science, history and high fantasy, this is a rapturous and adventuresome novel of ideas that, like Tyll's roaming sideshow, must be experienced to be believed.