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Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel Hardcover – Bargain Price, July 20, 2010
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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A German Jew who survived the war by hiding in Holland, Keilson later became a psychiatrist and published the first systemic study of children who had suffered from Nazi persecution. This selection is one of two novels Keilson began writing during the war. Its better-known sibling, Death of the Adversary (Eng. trans 1962), explored the thoughts of an oppressed man; plotless and psychological, it was something of an aesthetic experiment. Not previously translated, Comedy in a Minor Key takes a different approach: it tells the story of a Jewish man who dies in hiding from the perspective of the Dutch couple who shelter him and dispose of his body, and offers only slight clues as to the thoughts of the man in hiding. The story is simple and lean, but irony is plentiful, particularly when the couple must themselves go into hiding after realizing that tags bearing their name were left on the deceased’s clothing when his body was discovered. In spite of potentially comedic elements (and its title), most readers will not find this to be an essentially humorous book. They will find, however, a brisk, engaging work of Holocaust literature that deserves to be better known. --Brendan Driscoll
Praise for Comedy in a Minor Key
“This first-ever English translation of Keilson’s gripping 1947 novel about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish perfume merchant in their home during WWII marks a welcome reintroduction to the author’s unfortunately obscure oeuvre . . . Beautifully nuanced and moving, Keilson’s tale probes the more concealed, subtle forces that annihilate the human spirit.” —Publishers Weekly
“[Comedy in a Minor Key’s] design is so neat, spare, and geometric that to think of it is like tapping a spoon to a crystal glass.” —Yelena Akhtiorskaya, The Forward
“A brisk, engaging work of Holocaust literature that deserves to be better known.” —Brendan Driscoll, Booklist
“What Keilson had experienced, body and soul, went into this precisely composed book, which succeeds in capturing the tragedy of countless anonymous victims alongside the grotesquerie of the individual tragic case.” —Ulrich Weinzierl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
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The first paragraph establishes a key aspect of the novel. The bombers - unspecified - but we know they are British and American - are flying overhead, on their way to Germany. The year is never revealed. It is one of the most realistic touches, since in a real war, particularly of those wars when you are in "for the duration," you never know when it will end. And throughout the novel, the war is in the distant background, like those bombers. The central theme is the relationship of three people, Nico, a Jew in his 40's, and the much younger Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who were asked to perform their patriotic "duty" and hide him in their house.
Nico, who had been a traveling salesman of perfume ("a woman's calling card") is, of necessity, thrust into a relationship of dependency with a much younger couple. All three must practice varying degrees of deception. Ideally, no one else would know that Nico is there, for the normal "security" reasons, but that simply is not realistic. Keilson deftly demonstrates how the circle of the "informed" must slowly grow. Nico is always required to stay away from the window, and is usually confined to his room, but is "allowed" out for brief walks on moonless nights. Like most of us who have not been spies, or others who routinely deceive in their work lives, the three are amateurs in this game, and Keilson deftly explores this theme, including how they might be willing to deceive each other.
Early on in the novel, the reader learns that Nico dies. Yet another dilemma. How to dispose of the body, and what "rituals" might be observed, or not. Tellingly, as the author states, so few adults have actually seen a dead body, and certainly have not been confronted with how to move it. It is a short novel which can be read in a few hours, yet Keilson also managed the theme of a change in the dependency relationship: the providers of sanctuary were in turn required to seek it.
Regrettably this is the first Dutch author I have read. The work reminded me of the incisive novels of the German author, Bernard Schlink, who also has explored subtle themes of life under Nazi rule. As for Keilson's novel, 5-stars, plus.
But it starts with a twist. Their lodger, whom they know as Nico, catches a fever and dies. The succeeding chapters alternate between the details of disposing of the body with their doctor's help, and flashbacks to various points in the year that Nico spent in their house. The word "comedy" in the title is well taken, not that any of this is funny, but that it is a series of everyday accidents, brief embarrassments, unexpected encounters, all fortunately having a good outcome. Even the clumsy business of dealing with the body, in a different context, could be the stuff of farce.
Only at the end do Wim and Marie, alone once more, really take stock of what they have done. It is a really striking passage, extraordinary in its honesty, and so far from the heroic myth: "And then there was also a little embarrassment, a little disappointment. Why did he of all people have to die? [...] It was practically a trick he had played on them with this death, on the people who had kept him hidden for an entirely different purpose. He didn't need to go into hiding in order to die, he could have just simply . . . , like all the countless others . . . ".
It breaks off in strings of dots. For those are ellipses they cannot fill, outcomes they cannot allow. In the understatement of those unspoken thoughts lies the true power of this tribute to the bravery of ordinary people in a dangerous time.
Most recent customer reviews
Good discussion for book clubs.