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Book Review

A survivor’s tale, darkly comic, full of mourning

By Linda K. Wertheimer
August 3, 2010

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Not once does the author mention Hitler. Not once does he mention death camps. Not once does he put the word Nazi on paper.

Rather, in “Comedy in a Minor Key,’’ author Hans Keilson reveals the horrors of the Holocaust in an eerie, intense way. He takes readers inside the minds of three main characters and provides a gripping psychoanalysis of what it was like both for a Jew in hiding and the couple who gave him sanctuary.

Originally published in German in 1947, “Comedy in a Minor Key ’’ is out in English for the first time. The timing seems right, given that Keilson recently turned 100, according to his publisher.

The novel, a dark comedy, is semi-autobiographical. A Dutch couple, Marie and Wim, agree to hide a Jewish man during World War II. The fugitive, who gives his name as Nico rather than his Jewish-sounding name, dies after a prolonged illness. Dead, the man is more dangerous to the couple than alive. They hide him under a bench, but Marie realizes she has made a tremendous goof: She dressed the dead man in her husband’s pajamas, which have a traceable laundry tag.

Born in Berlin, Keilson fled to the Netherlands in 1936. A couple in Delft — the pair named in the book’s dedication — hid Keilson during the war. His parents fled to the Netherlands in 1939, but never went into hiding after the German occupation in 1940; they died at Auschwitz. Keilson, who had trained as a physician in Germany, became a psychoanalyst after the war and treated children traumatized during the Holocaust.

He began writing “Comedy in a Minor Key’’ and another novel, “The Death of the Adversary,’’ during the war. The latter novel, published in 1959 in German, then in English in 1962, tells the story of a Jewish man’s struggle to make sense of Hitler’s rise to power; Keilson, though, does not use Hitler’s name. He calls him “B.’’

“Comedy in a Minor Key,’’ skillfully crafted overall, has occasional bumpy transitions. The timeline weaves between the couple’s attempt to hide the body without detection and the months Nico lives in their upstairs room. Unless the person narrating is clearly Nico, it sometimes takes a moment to realize whether the book is in the present or the past.

The book’s strength lies in the artful way Keilson reveals the inner emotions of rescuer and fugitive.

Nico, anxious for any news, daily slips out of his room to hear the sound of the newspaper dropped through the mail slot. Then he waits for Marie to bring it upstairs. “The seconds that followed next were often the richest in tension and suspense of his whole concealed life,’’ Keilson writes. “Did they truly understand that, his hosts?’’

Marie shares her desire to not only save Nico but also to preserve his dignity. “She had seen fear: the terrible helpless fear that rises up out of sadness and despair. . . . The man offered it up to her so shamelessly that it felt to Marie like she was seeing him physically naked.’’

Nico, naturally, is on the biggest emotional roller coaster. He has moments of joy, gloom, and anger. At one point, he admires a vase that Wim shows him. Later, in his room, he wants to smash the vase as his mind travels to a dreadful place. “Then his room was filled with suffering faces — contorted, disfigured, beaten to a pulp. . . . They were endless, the images he saw and heard in these hours.’’

Then the worst sensation hits him. “When he breathed in deep, he tasted gas. Gas! His room was full of gas! . . . What did the others understand of all this?’’

To say what Wim and Marie ultimately understood would give away the ending. This fast-paced book, translated by Damion Searls, is a jewel. The author lets us peer into his soul.

The mournful tone matches the author’s feelings even now. In a March interview with a Dutch newspaper reporter, Keilson, who lives outside Amsterdam, commented on the reporter’s observation that the author once wrote an article stating that his time of mourning began after the 1945 liberation and never ended.

“That’s right,’’ Keilson said. “I still mourn for my parents, even now. I dream about them often, and for a long time I reproached myself that I should have had them go into hiding.’’

Linda K. Wertheimer blogs about the Jewish faith and family at www.jewishmuse.com.

COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY By Hans Keilson

Translated from the German by Damion Searls

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

135 pp., $22