The premise is simple enough. A married couple, Wim and Marie, decide to take in a Jew named Nico during World War II. In hiding him, the comfortably middle-class Wim and Marie learn what it means to live the precarious life of a Jew in 1940s Holland, in what would have otherwise been a set of rather ordinary circumstances. Soon afterwards, Nico becomes ill and eventually dies in their house, leaving the couple in the unique position of needing to dispose of a body no one can know they had there in the first place. They eventually leave him wrapped in blankets in a nearby park, but soon discover that they might have left a clue to their identity behind. Therefore, in a wonderful turn of irony, Wim and Marie are themselves forced to instantly flee their house for fear of being discovered by the police.
The title is beautiful and wholly appropriate to the story. Juxtapositions are everywhere: there is the comic lightness of opera bouffe as Wim and Marie try to figure out how to get rid of Nico, but also the crushing dramatic realization of how this has all come about because of how some humans have chosen to treat others; the interplay of the quotidian as the couple go about their day-to-day existences in war-torn Holland with only the audience to find that this will one day be a place of grand historical importance.
Writer Francine Prose recently wrote in a piece in the New York Times that she has come to include Dutch writer Hans Keilson in her personal list of the world's "very greatest writers." On that alone, I took up Keilson's "Death of the Adversary," and was just as impressed. Despite Time magazine's listing it as one of the ten best magazines of the year, aside Nabokov's "Pale Fire" and Porter's "Ship of Fools," Keilson unfortunately fell into obscurity in the English-speaking world.
Translator Damion Searls' revivification of his work is admirable and deserved, even while I found this "Comedy in a Minor Key" to be much less rewarding than "Death of the Adversary." The former is a small, personal, intimate picture of human identity and frailty touchingly conceived, but it felt underdeveloped to me. Its size, at a mere 135 pages, gave me less time than I would have preferred to get to know Wim, Marie, and Nico. "Death of the Adversary," however, deals with looming, world-historical forces that are at work in our lives, with bigger, abstracter ideas, and was probably for that reason more compelling for me. My rating of three stars here might be a little low. I didn't know whether to go with three or four, but I can't see myself rereading it any time soon, so I chose three. I would recommend to anyone interested in Keilson that they read "Death of the Adversary," which I found to be truly spectacular.