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The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson

October 3, 2013


A couple of years ago the works of Dutch writer of German origins Hans Keilson received a lot of international attention thanks to an enthusiastic article in the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times which saluted The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key as masterpieces, I have finally read the first one and I have to say that the hype has reason to be and now I want to put my hands on Comedy in a Minor Key too: The Death of the Adversary is not only the more profound and brilliant book I have ever read about the ascent of Hitler and its effect upon the German citizens, most of all it is a great novel about the most miserable human trait: the necessity of having an enemy, an adversary – we can be civilized but the animal nature of man (brilliantly illustrated in the book by the story of the elks donated by the Czar to the King of Prussia) is always ready to retake possess of our instincts and behavior.

The adversary shapes our thoughts and emotions, our life and friendships, what is the right thing to do? Kill him? Ignore him? Befriend him? This inner struggle can be ended only by the death of the adversary or by our own death, but in truth it will never end, there will always be an adversary. Keilson´s novel can sound deeply pessimistic as a result of the experiences of World War II but a quick look at events outside of Europe – but no need to go to Chad, just think of Chechnya in the southernmost part of Eastern Europe – sadly reminds us that history has repeated itself many times even after the end of Nazism. Keilson´s language is beautiful and his thoughts and observations are remarkably sharp and meaningful, The Death of the Adversary is not a book that will bring you joy, but knowing the devil inside human nature is the only way to keep him at bay.

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