“The Death of the Adversary” by Hans Keilson

 “The Death of the Adversary”  by Hans Keilson  (1959) – 208 pages – Translated by Ivo Jarosy

 “The Death of the Adversary” is about a man’s personal enemy.

 This personal enemy is a powerful person.  In fact, he is the leader of a country.    He rules the country with an iron fist and is hugely influential.  A huge number of people are under his sway.  He convinces these followers to mistreat an entire other race with hatred, contempt, and violence.   With his passionate speeches he stirs his followers to humiliate, torture, and finally murder millions of innocent men, women, and children. 

 I’m sure by now all of you have figured out who this personal enemy is, but the name is never mentioned in the novel.  Now I will discuss the main character of this novel, the ‘I’ of this novel, who has the above personal enemy.   As a small boy, he is unaware of the personal enemy except for overheard whispers between his parents   His first real indication he has an enemy, is when the boys choose sides for teams, he is chosen last even though he is one of the better players.  Soon the other boys subject him to gratuitous beatings during the football games.   

 Later he gets a job in a department store and meets a young woman who works at the store.  They seem to get along well, until her brother’s friend tells his vivid detailed account of when his gang desecrates a cemetery .  Our main protagonist decides never to see this young woman again. 

 Soon he and everyone of his race are forcibly removed from their jobs. The personal enemy’s underlings start rounding up people and sending them to concentration camps.  Our main protagonist’s parents have saved enough to sneak him out of the country.  He asks his parents about what is going to happen to them, and his mother says they are old.   As he leaves the country, he knows that is the last he will ever see of them because of his personal enemy.    He questions if he should have killed his personal enemy.   

 Last year I read Hans Keilson’s novella “Comedy on a Minor Key” which seemed to me a perfect well-constructed moving little novel that ultimately makes you feel good about life.  “Death of an Adversary” is much larger in scope and messier.  A lot of the novel consists of tortuous reasoning as our main protagonist tries to come to philosophical terms with his personal enemy on the day that enemy is to die.  The set pieces are emotionally powerful. These set pieces include the little boy playing sports with the neighborhood kids, the harrowing account of the desecration of the cemetery, and his father packing his rucksack in anticipation of being taken away.   My suggestion would be to first read “Comedy in a Minor Key’, and if you want to read more Keilson (and you will), read ‘Death of the Adversary’ which is somewhat muddled but powerful. 

 Hans Keilson died this past May 31 at age 101, rest in peace.

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