I wasn’t sure if I was going to join in Caroline’s German Literature Month readalong this year as I actively avoid holocaust literature. However, I’ve read so many excellent reviews of Hans Keilson’s Death of the Adversary, I decided to go ahead.
Having turned the final page, I’m not sure I’d tag it holocaust literature even though it is obviously dealing with the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews. Neither theme is stated explicitly simply because Keilson makes his main characters anonymous: the narrator who becomes aware of his enemy at the age of 10 and the adversary named “B”. Events clearly follow historical events in Germany during the 1920’s and 1930’s: B’s slow rise to power, the ostracism of the narrator because of who he is, the passing of the Nuremberg laws which heralded the start of the persecution in earnest, the road to war and ultimate defeat. In a series of key episodes, the narrator tells of his painful coming of age and his fascination for the enemy, the man who set out to destroy his life. Not as perverse as it sounds. The boy is trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Why is he ostracised at school, suddenly becoming the kid no one wants on their football team? What part does the frenzied desecration of a Jewish cemetery have in enabling the genocide to come? (Answer: it “made the murder of a living person seem more comprehensible and less repellent“.) Without ever actually taking us into the death camps, Death of the Adversary makes for horrific and heartbreaking reading. (Exactly the reasons why I avoid reading holocaust literature.)
While the action is grounded in the personal experiences of the narrator (and the semi-autobiographical experiences of the author), the veneer of anonymity ensures a universal application. The book acts as a warning. This is how tyranny establishes itself. Don’t underestimate the bluster and the threats that small time politicians make. Look how quickly this can turn into reality.
While in hiding, Keilson worked as a therapist with children separated from their parents and there is keen interest in the psychologies of both narrator and adversary in the text. I certainly don’t understand all the psychological imperatives at work here but there is a very clever argument that B loves his victims because without them he”d be nothing. I also liked the bitter irony in this.
The children, who were still dancing with their seemingly bewitched mothers in front of his slow-moving car, apparently found it easier to attract his attention. … He bent forward slightly and called half to the driver and half to those standing nearby on the pavement … “careful, the children, the children, careful!”
Only today does the full meaning of this exclamation, which seemed so simple and full of concern, become apparent – today when he is unmercifully sacrificing these same children, whom he was then afraid of running over in his car.
How can I summarise my reading experience? I can’t say I enjoyed this book but I am very glad I read it and agree it is an important work that transcends its time. I will be keeping it on my shelves and if I do reread it, it will be to analyse the metaphors behind the photography references. There is much to admire in these pages but most of all the author’s control. Written during his own years of hiding from his Nazi persecutors, I am in awe of his ability to write such a dispassionate and lucid novel. What a man.