The Death of the Adversary: A Novel Paperback – Jul 20 2010
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“For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I'll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius . . . Although the novels are quite different, both are set in Nazi-occupied Europe and display their author's eye for perfectly illustrative yet wholly unexpected incident and detail, as well as his talent for storytelling and his extraordinarily subtle and penetrating understanding of human nature. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect they share is the formal daring of the relationship between subject matter and tone. Rarely has a finer, more closely focused lens been used to study such a broad and brutal panorama, mimetically conveying a failure to come to grips with reality by refusing to call that reality by its proper name . . . Rarely have such harrowing narratives been related with such wry, off-kilter humor, and in so quiet a whisper. Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world's very greatest writers.” ―Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review
“A welcome reissue of a classic . . . This psychologically subtle and acute account of denial in the face of Hitler's rise to power received strong acclaim before disappearing from print. With the celebration last year of the 100th birthday of Keilson . . . the novel has lost none of its insidious power . . . The narrative recalls the existential depth of Camus and the fabulist absurdity of Kafka or Beckett.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The power of the unsaid haunts this devastating novel . . . A profoundly affecting exploration of the inextricable nature of love and hate, friend and enemy, Keilson's work . . . is as stimulating today as it was half a century ago.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Since Adolf Hitler, an outpouring of writing has tried to explain the violence that human beings do to one another . . . Perhaps the profoundest explanation to date comes from the pen of a Jewish writer driven from Germany in 1936 and now living in Holland. Hans Keilson's novel subtly and eloquently probes the ambivalent relation of victim with aggressor . . . Keilson traces the growth of hatred in his leading character as other writers trace love or self-knowledge.” ―Time, Best Books of 1962
About the Author
Hans Keilson is the author of Comedy in a Minor Key. Born in Germany in 1909, he published his first novel in 1933. During World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. Later, as a psychotherapist, he pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. In a 2010 New York Times review, Francine Prose called Keilson a "genius" and "one of the world's very greatest writers." He died in 2011 at the age of 101.
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The narrator - who bemoans his own passivity - is blessed, or cursed, with high intelligence. Because he is unable to come to grips with evil for its own sake, he twists his logic to make sense out of the insensible; he knows B hates what the narrator represents, but he believes that the narrator desperately needs that hatred and, in fact, feeds on it...eliciting hatred in return. He goes further: in his "logical" mind, he believes that the adversary and his victims are in a state of symbiosis, feeding upon each other and because of their mutual need, neither adversary will eliminate the other. History, of course, has sadly shown how ludicrous this conclusion was.
The key character muses, "I could not give him up; I needed him. His existence meant my destruction in the near future, that much was certain. But his sudden death, or some other event that would have robbed me of his threatening presence, would equally have destroyed me. Between us two, ties and obligations had come into being, perceptible only to those whose share in the things of this world lie in suffering. A strange and questionable share, perhaps; but who can break the community that secretly establishes itself between the persecutors and their victims?"
Mr. Keilson uses a conceit in presenting these musings; his fictional (or autobiographical?) narrator has deposited a manuscript for safekeeping during the war years. Now, as he awaits word of the death of B, he rekindles his memory about the events of those pre-war years.
In haunting prose, he remembers his father's words when he was only 10: "If B. should ever come to power, may God have mercy on us. Then things will really start to happen." He recalls being ostracized from a group of non-Jewish children who expel him from their games. He remembers the ending of a close friendship with another man who, it turns out, is enthralled by B. and his ideas. He recounts the two times when his path and his adversary's intersected.
And, in one of the most devastating parts of the book, he recreates an evening at the apartment of a saleswomen he worked with whose brother and friends are revealed to be Nazi thugs, who desecrate a supposed Jewish cemetery to prove that even in death, Jews will not allowed to experience peace. As the young man describes in exhaustive detail how gravestones - even those of young children - were defaced, our narrator sits transfixed, unable to admit to his heritage or condemn these monstrous acts.
It bears acknowledging that Hans Keilson - now a centenarian - lives in an Amsterdam village, after the Nuremberg laws forced him to flee from his native Germany. He is a psychoanalyst who pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. It is no surprise, then, that the book is underpinned by a deep psychoanalysis of the relationship of perpetrator and victim, and the victim's sense of denial and self-delusion.
Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn't. By removing the victim from his more primal emotions, there is a certain sterility that is not normally seen in Holocaust-themed books. The translator, Ivo Jarosy, appears to take a literal rather than interpretive approach, which creates a certain British formality in tone.
Still, as Arthur Miller once wrote, "Attention must be paid." Hans Keilson is one of the last witnesses to the atrocity that was the Holocaust. In an era where - incredibly - a new breed of Holocaust deniers are rearing their ugly heads, it is important for the world to understand once again the sheer evil and damning repercussions of this most heinous act of genocide.
At the outset of one of those novels, Death of the Adversary, the narrator explains that the manuscript herein was given to him by a Dutch lawyer, who had, two and a half years into the war, obtained it, along with other important personal documents, from a client of his, an enigmatic German, a mystery man of sorts. The anonymous author had entreated his attorney to keep these papers in a safe place until such time as he could retrieve them. "Read them and tell me what you think of them" says the lawyer to his friend, the narrator, who presumably is a psychiatrist of some repute. The resulting novel consists of the fictionalized memoir of this mysterious German, in which he wrestles with the relationship between himself and the one he calls his "adversary", the enemy of his family, his people. This adversary, who is never mentioned by name, called only B throughout, obviously represents Adolph Hitler; and the memoirist's people, the Jews - a word, incidentally never used in his writings.
The title word, Adversary, is an interesting and careful choice since it is commonly an appellation of Satan, and would logically connote the paradisaical serpent along with Hitler (B in our story), as he seductively tempts his fellow Deutsch-landers, bending their will to the perpetration of genocide. This equation of Hitler to the devil would seem hackneyed from a less insightful writer, instead Keilson delves deep into the relationship between adversaries, exploring the magnetism that draws our memoirist to his innate enemy.
He learns from his parents at an early age of the rising charismatic politician, the bane of his photographer father and therefore of him. "Who was this man, who made it necessary for God to have mercy on us, something of which my father spoke only in a trembling voice?" he writes, relating his fears as a child. Later in his youth, he is shunned by the other boys on the soccer field. His mother, learning of this, marches him back to the sandlot and beseeches the children to include her child in the game. But after they let him play, he is still abused, and attacked on the field, made to play fullback, not allowed to showcase his natural talents of speed and agility. During one particular play, he decides to fight back. Leaping for the ball with the defender upon him, he kicks with full force, his leg connecting with the other boy. After writhing for some time on the ground, his opponent jumps up to confront him with "indescribable hatred" and "boundless contempt". This experience affects him, he decides never in the future to defend himself in the same manner he is attacked.
As our memoirist grows older, he becomes hyper aware of who and what he is and how his enemy, or the mere fact of calling this man his enemy, affects his relationships. A strong friendship goes awry, as he confesses to his friend that he has a secret enemy. "Why didn't you tell me about this before?" his friend asks, adding later, "...your enemy should be more important to you than your friend." After naming the enemy, he realizes the boy is likely involved in the Hitler Youth, yet he launches into a tirade against B, the first time he has unleashed his enmity. But it is through the subsequent discussion that he learns that he may have more in common with his adversary than he would ever dream possible. His friend exclaims that B has great ideas, that he only "needs someone an enemy or something, to achieve his aims". At the end of their visit, the Hitler Youth tell him a story about the Kaiser and his cousin the Tsar. After a visit from his cousin, the Tsar decided to present him with a parting gift: a herd of elk that had lived on the Steppes in Russia. The Kaiser brought the herd back to Germany, selecting a protected area in the country for the elk to roam where he felt they would feel at home. They lived there happily for a considerable time, but soon there came reports of the herds dying out. The Kaiser, upset with this turn of events sent word to the Tsar who dispatched a master forester to investigate the matter. He examined everything that might have affected the elk in their new habitat, and at the end of a year's investigation, he determined that nothing was done wrong relating to their feeding, climate, soil and so on. "So why have they died out?" asked the Kaiser. "They are missing one thing," said the forester. "Wolves." The Hitler Youth, implying that prey lose their will to survive without predators to keep them vigilant and vital, strikes a dissonant chord in our young writer, opening the dam of self doubt.
By the end, our memoirist has, among other experiences: come face to face with his enemy, now Der Fuhrer, at an inauguration rally; has his convictions tested when he falls in surreptitiously with Nazi thugs; has aided in counter propaganda campaigns with a friend; and has even come to imagine the death of his adversary. He finally comes to peace with that great wraith that has thrown a pall over his entire life. What Keilson illuminates in the pages of this mere novel is more than just a study of temptation to evil, or of the struggle of good to prevail, it is of the very nature of the human spirit, its will, and dedication to purpose, along with its vulnerability. What the centenarian Keilson has produced here is lasting and profound, much like his own life.
~Book Jones~ 5 Stars
"They turned into wolves and devastated cemeteries at night. But however much they tried to appear like wolves, they were not animals. It was not just a question of what they did and said, but also of what they had to keep silent about."
- Thoughts of the protagonist after spending an evening with young Nazis.
In "The Death of the Adversary" the "adversary" and his followers are not named. The adversary is merely referred to as "B", and his followers as his followers. Similarly the central character is not labeled by himself as Jewish. Merely as "other".
And so when we read of him being outcast by the other children when he was very young, and about how his mother takes him by the hand to lead him back to the children to ask them to please play with him, the effect is even sadder than it would have been, had its circumstance been explicit. 'There,' my mother said, and tried to loosen her stern, serious face into a smile. 'He's a child like you. You are all children, play with one another."
For some reason, perhaps because I had never completely comprehended the real horror of it before - the effect of the persecution of the Jewish children in Germany, Poland, Czech ...., I was struck by this scene, where the child feels only humiliation and anxiety when the children turn reluctantly to play with him. His short time with them is filled with his anxiety and their cruelty.
"My former pleasure in playing games was dampened by the constant fear that I might be excluded."
Sadder even than when "they took the old people away.
My father carried his rucksack on his shoulders.
My mother wept.
I shall never see them again."
Yes, I've read The Diary of Anne Frank, and seen "The Pawnbroker". I've read and seen countless other novels and films set in Nazi-occupied Europe. But for some reason I'd never looked upon the particular tragedy of the effects of persecution on children.
Anne Frank was a child. Only ever a child. But Anne retained her sense of joy and hope. The child Keilson describes is a sad little boy and one's heart goes out to him, but it goes to him without hope.
In Wikipedia I read that Keilson, " is a Jewish German/Dutch novelist, poet, psychoanalyst, and child psychologist who wrote about traumas relating to what happened in Europe during WWII. In particular, he worked with traumatized orphans."
What else can one say? Oh yes, there's this -
Hans Keilson is a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor. "The Death of the Adversary" is autobiographical.
"One cannot cut the lines of experience out of one's face, like the rotten bits in an apple; one has to carry them about in one's face and know that one carries them; one sees them, as in a mirror, every day when one washes oneself, and one cannot cut them out, they belong there."
"He had swore to her...that this was how it had all happened, as though he had first to mist the mirror slightly with his breath before he could dare to look into it. [...] What can a man do but breathe at the mirror and look gently at his misted image?"
Mirrors are a repeating motif in Hans Keilson's novel, The Death of the Adversary. Written during WWII, this novel has been republished this year. The Los Angeles Times wrote enthusiastically "It's as if, one morning, we were to learn that not only had Anne Frank survived the secret annex but was also still among us." (Sept 26, 2010*) Mirrors generally symbolize self-reflection and contemplation, and are fittingly used to describe the inner questions that plague a young man as he realizes that Hitler's influence was inevitably going to change his life. First, he hears his parents whisper and worry, and tries to decipher the codes they seemed to be speaking in. Next he finds himself an outcast in the neighborhood as the other children begin to avoid him. His mother takes the well-intentioned step of intervening on his behalf, trying to convince the children that they are all alike and should play together. His humiliation is complete, and never fully leaves him. Thus, he begins focusing on his "adversary".
"...enemies will never die out in this world. They are recruited from former friends."
The next salvo comes from a close friend who reveals he supports Hitler's agenda. He explains to the unnamed protagonist that it is simply a matter of balance: just as elks need wolves to control their species and balance their habitat, so too, Germany is balancing itself. For the greater good, he implies. Their friendship quickly dissolves. The young man now explains the details of his experience, from strained friendships to watching his parents change to going into hiding.
Certainly, this novel has a more mature voice than Anne Frank's diary. The protagonist is more somber and definitely more pessimistic. I didn't find that the story gave any exceptionally new revelations about the time period, but it does provide a new perspective to describe the experience. One brief passage about the change in his parent's attitude reveals a surprising aspect of human nature under trial: his father who bitterly lamented the rise of Hitler's power becomes almost giddy with excitement when the horror begins, while his religious mother, who started out optimistic, begins to withdraw into depression and anxiety.
One thing that is especially fascinating is that Keilson never actually defines his adversary as Hitler. He uses the term "B" to represent him, although it's clear of whom he speaks: a man with an evil plan and the power to implement it. Yet, at times "B" is also portrayed as an intangible force, a concept of evil bigger than the Holocaust. The ambiguity gives the reader pause to consider what defines evil and apply the revelations experienced to virtually anyone suffering oppression. Incidently, I was curious if by using the initial rather than the name, Keilson is attempting to lessen the power of Hitler's name, giving it less fame. For example, notorious killers today are well known by name: Ted Bundy, Lee Harvey Oswald, or John Wayne Gacey. After a period of time when their horrific deeds are forgotten, they become simply a pop culture reference. By not using Hitler's name, it could be that in some small way, Keilson doesn't want to give him any further notoriety.
(Copy provided by publisher for review: receipt of which has no influence on review contents)