DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY by Hans Keilson

Book Quote:

“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?”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (OCT 22, 2010)

What is the relationship between persecutors and their victims? In The Death of the Adversary – poised on the brink of what soon will be one of the world’s most horrific tragedies – an unnamed narrator in an unnamed country reflects on an unnamed figure who will soon ascend to power. Although the figure (“B”) is never revealed, it soon becomes obvious that he is Hitler and that the narrator is of Jewish descent.

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.

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 seek to banish 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. (Translated by Ivo Jarosy.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 18 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition (July 20, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wkipedia page on Hans Keilson
EXTRAS: The New York Times article on Hans Keilson
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of :

Comedy in a Minor Key

Also try:
The Great House by Nicole Kraus

Bibliography:


October 22, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Classic, Facing History, Germany, World Lit

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