Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary is a psychologically complex exploration of the shattered states of mind induced by persecution and totalitarian government.
Hans Keilson lived to the age of 101 and published three short novels in his lifetime. Born in Germany in 1909, he fled to the Netherlands in 1936 and by 1943 he had gone into hiding and joined the Dutch Resistance. His first novel was published in 1933, and was banned by the Nazis the following year.
His second published novel, Comedy In a Minor Key (1947), is a brilliantly absurd-surreal novella, detailing the topsy-turvy psychological states induced by the need to go into hiding to avoid persecution. The novella is very Kafkaesque in feel, and has many similarities to The Diary of Anne Frank which was published the very same year.
The Death of the Adversary is Keilson’s last novel, published in 1959. It is far more psychologically complex and emotionally fraught than Comedy in a Minor Key. An introductory note, set in italics, describes the text that follows as the personal memoirs of an anonymous man in his thirties. These papers were given to a Dutch lawyer in Amsterdam after the war.
The next two hundred pages describes the narrator’s imagined and understandably neurotic relationship to his ‘adversary’, whom he gives the name ‘B’. Although it is never said outright, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that ‘B’ is Hitler, while the narrator is Jewish. Without travelling a straight narrative path, the novel is composed of a series of memories, reminisces and recalled childhood events that form a psychological mosaic. Keilson brilliantly evokes what it’s like to belong to a despised race or group of people. Furthermore, the emotional confusion that accompanies being hated for no rational reason.
There are some extraordinary passages in The Death of the Adversary. One involves a description of a group of thugs who desecrate a Jewish cemetery. Keilson gets intimately into the warped thinking and rationale behind such acts of vandalism. Another describes the narrator coming close to seeing ‘B’ at a motorcade. One wonders if Keilson also saw Hitler close up.
There are passages describing the relationship between persecuted and persecutor, between the narrator and ‘B’, that are deeply existential and hence difficult to grasp. The text is not wilfully opaque or dense in this manner, as Keilson writes in a lucid prose, but his meaning seems open to interpretation. In short, this is the sort of book that will profit by close reading.
All in all I found this an amazing novel that captures the feeling of total persecution in a carefully constructed prose. A terrible sadness and loneliness hangs over the text, mixed in with its nightmare quality, making The Death of the Adversary a mini-classic in the mode of existential, Kafkaesque fiction.
The Death of the Adversary, by Hans Keilson. Published by Vintage. ISBN: 9780099560623 RRP: $34.95