Secrecy and a sense of claustrophia prevails as Wim and Marie hide Nico upstairs in their house. No telling Wim’s sister, the cleaning lady, the fishmonger who cleans the fish every week in the kitchen, no telling the neighbours. “Good people” or not someone will gossip. Jop had been caught three days ago – he was careless, he had been betrayed. Who knew which?
Nico stays in the room. A trip to the bathroom every hour and a half. No looking out the window, no turning on the light. No sneaking down the stairs in the afternoon when the paper is delivered. We’ll have to wait for Marie to bring it to us when she returns.
Marie gives Nico the news regarding Jop……..
She had seen fear: the terrible helpless fear that rises up out of sadness and despair and is no longer attached to anything – the helpless fear that is tied only to nothingness. Not fear or anxiety or despair about a person or a situation, nothing, nothing, only the exposure, the vulnerability, being cast loose from all certainties, from all dignity and all love. The man offered it up to her so shamelessly that it felt to Marie like she was seeing him physically naked. No cry out loud, no contortion of his face or his hands, he was simply uncovered, he stood in the middle of the room, the focal point and the bull’s-eye for all the poisoned arrows shot at him from beyond life.
On cleaning day…….
He heard the women’s footsteps stomping heavily through the house, heard how she carried the laundry into the bedroom, how she moved around with the vacuum cleaner and carried out her other duties. The nearness of another human being, even one who he knew harboured no suspicions, stirred up the tense quiet and solitude of his room.
A few months later……..
Once in mid-October…..when the cleaning lady was in the house, Nico heard someone slowly coming up the stairs at around four o’clock.
Marie with the tea, he thought, and stood up. Why is she taking such deliberate steps? Maybe she’s carrying her tea, or some laundry?... He crept to the door and waited. The steps came closer………right up to his door. There was something tense inside him. It’s Marie, I’ll take the tray from her. He carefully opened the door.
Before him stood the cleaning lady…breathing heavily…….Her pains were back………..She held the laundry bag pressed tight against her chest and looked with astonished eyes, at the man who suddenly stood there in the doorframe turning dead white.
It’s all over, Nico thought. He understood that he had done something stupid that could never be made right again. He staggered and shut his eyes……… When he opened his eyes again, the woman still stood two steps away from him in the hallway. Her suffering face now wore an understanding smile, which also made it possible to see the gaps in her teeth. Nico put the index finger of his right hand to his mouth, nodded slowly and sadly at her with his contorted face, and gently shut the door……
Nico lay with sweat on his bed, as though paralysed, his face covered with both hands. He no longer knew if the encounter had been real or just a dream. His head ached.
Life (but not as we know it) continues…….. until Nico falls ill and dies and his Dutch hosts have the problem of disposing of his body in the German-occupied city.
Enjoyable, interesting, educational and a reminder of both man’s humanity and inhumanity at the same time.
4 from 5
Referred to as a “genius” and “the greatest novelist you’ve never heard of” it's well worth hunting down at least one of his books, in my opinion.
Based upon an actual event (an ill-fated husband-wife conspiracy) in Berlin during the Nazi regime, this novel reveals the paranoia-inducing police-state, with informants everywhere, including within the nuclear family; the brutality of the clerk-mentality elevated to power; and the victimizing by the sociopaths and other flotsam of society that rose through the ranks of the Nazi party. The style is engaging, making for a fast read; the cavalcade of characters is fascinating and believable; and the pathos evoked by the thwarted aspirations of the good people (for whom the reader forms great sympathy/empathy) becomes frightening - how easy it is for a society to slip to the depths of persecution and control, and how difficult it can be to make any difference by attempting to inform, or conspire with, others or to rebel against such a machine. I had done previous reading on the holocaust/Nazi Germany for a moral philosophy course paper: this novel, by Hans Keilson, who lived in Berlin during WWII, and experienced the terror, the mind-control, and the efficiency of the police state, opened my eyes to one aspect I had not previously dealt with adequately: how, when the punishment is certain death (by beheading!) does an average person avoid being a cog in the machine, and how does a person make a moral stand that is more than a gesture? The novel seems desperate to find an answer, but.... An amazing little novel. Comedy In A Minor Key