Friday, November 30, 2012

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Comedy in a Minor Key describes what it is like to live in fear and to be consumed with paranoia. The comedy of the title reflects how daily life is transformed into a theatre of the absurd once totalitarian regimes take over. Keilson’s exquisite novella is perceptive, human and real.

Hans Keilson was born in Germany but fled the county to the Netherlands upon the Nazi’s rise to power. His work since the Second World War has specialised in treating the traumatic effects of the Holocaust on Jewish survivors. First published in 1947, Comedy in a Minor Key strongly mixes Keilson’s work as a psychiatrist with a subtle yet powerful artistry.

The story is a simple one. A young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, decide to ‘do their part’ and hide an older Jewish man, named ‘Nico’ – a made up name. The novella describes the awkwardness and terrible feelings of helplessness on Nico’s part. He knows he is a burden and totally at the mercy of his hosts. Marie and Wim, for their part, struggle to make their guest feel comfortable, but there are challenges left, right and centre. Nico must hide in his room, make sure he doesn’t go too close to his window for fear of being sighted, and barely make a sound all day. The pressure to remain virtually invisible is exquisitely described.

All this struggle, paranoia and careful planning to keep Nico protected from evil outside political forces comes undone when, ironically, he is struck down with pneumonia. Nico goes from bad to worse and then rather abruptly dies. Wim and Marie are thrown into a flurry. Complexity and irony are heaped one upon another. An invisible person has died in their home and now they must dispose of the body.

Up until this stage in the novella, I wondered where the comedy of the title was to be found. Every page irresistibly brought The Diary of Anne Frank to mind (they were both published the same year, interestingly enough). This is one powerful aspect of Keilson’s genius. He so realistically imagines what it feels like, psychologically and physically, to have to go into hiding when your life is in  danger. It is this which gives the novella its truth and power.

The disposal of the body, and a series of events that follow, full of fear, paranoia and absurdity, is what gives the rest of the story its strong feel of reluctant comedy. War, secrecy, danger, the general topy-turvy nature of living under a totalitarian regime, means that normal day-to-day living must be turned into a constant theatre of the absurd. The most simple tasks can’t be performed without the possibility of them creating dire results.

Comedy in a Minor Key captures the paranoia and surreal absurdity of Kafka, while its psychological insights resemble those of Stefan Zweig. It has authenticity as a document of the times, vouchsafed by its uncanny similarity to The Diary of Anne Frank.

This is a small miracle of a book, so human and so tender. It evokes sympathy at ordinary people struggling to survive in nonsensical situations.

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781921844072  RRP: $22.95