Review: The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

death of the adversaryHans Keilson died in 2011 at the age of 101.  A German Jew, Keilson and his non-Jewish wife fled to the Netherlands in 1936 to avoid Nazi persecution.  The couple separated during the war while Keilson went into hiding, undertaking work among the Jewish children separated from their parents.  He reunited with his wife after the war and discovered that both his parents had been deported to Auschwitz where they had died.  In order to practice medicine in the Netherlands, Keilson had to re-qualify as a physician and later trained as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

While he was in hiding during the war, Keilson began work on his most significant novel Death of the Adversary in which he writes about the experience of being gradually cast out from a society which had previously been his home.  The English edition of the book has been in and out of print since 1962 but was republished by Vintage Books in 2011.

The book is written in the first person.  We join the un-named narrator living in his parent’s home (how we reviewers hate not knowing the name of the main character!).  In this case we are not even told which country the novel is located in and Keilson also deliberately anonymises the name of the dictator who slowly comes to power, giving him the title, “B” (he is of course based on Adolf Hitler).  The narrator’s father runs a photographic studio and is given to a pessimistic frame of mind which his wife finds too bleak, urging him not to voice his fears in front of their young son.

“B” is introduced to readers on the fifth page of the novel;

My enemy – I shall refer to him as B. – entered my life about twenty years ago.  At that time I had only a very vague idea what it meant to be someone’s enemy; still less did I realise what it meant to have an enemy.  One has to mature gradually towards one’s enemy as towards one’s best friend.

I frequently heard Father and Mother talk about the subject, mostly in the secretive, whispering voice of grown-ups who do not want the children to hear.  They were talking in order to hide something.  But children quickly learn to divine the secrets and fears of their elders and to grow up towards them.  My father said:

“If B. should ever come to power, may God have mercy on us”

My mother replied more quietly, “Who knows, perhaps everything will come out differently.  He’s not all that important yet”.

The narrator continues to go to school but as time goes on, he finds himself to be the last one picked for his football team and when he plays he is kicked and punched in ways which are clearly aimed to discourage him from playing again.  Friends begin to treat him differently and educational opportunities dry up.

He has a final conversation with one long-standing friend in which the narrator discusses his “enemy” only to hear his friend tell him that the “enemy” is someone his friend greatly admires, whose progress will be unstoppable; “He has great ideas.  Do you know what that means?  He sets up great new aims for our life, worth living and dying for. I wish you could see him or listen to him once”.

Eventually the narrator manages to get to hear B. give a speech and finds it to be a distressing experience;

His courage grew, he pronounced a few further more daring truths.  These were the kind of truths which one had to think over for a while, since they did not really make sense at first sight.  But no doubt they contained a grain of truth.  They were part of his repertoire and rarely failed to produce an effect. They were daring truths and of an inflammatory nature.  He gave the appearance of carrying on an argument with an aforementioned nobody.  He raised him to the rank of an adversary and began a duel with him before the eyes of everyone in the hall.  What a performance!

Helplessly I sat in the lounge. I was a nobody in the hall. I was listening to my own extermination.  I felt a dark premonition and my courage sank.

The narrator manages to get a job in a department store where he works as a packer.  One night a girl called from the store called Lisa takes him to her home and they go up to her room.  The narrator enjoys the feelings of relaxation and acceptance he finds with the young woman.  Before long her brother comes home with a group of young men who all appear to be in some sort of organised group.  They do not realise that he is one of the outcasts of society and enjoy telling him that they have been on an expedition to desecrate a graveyard.  They describe what they have done in great detail and the narrator has to listen to their boasts, unable to protest about the appalling acts they have done, possibly on the graves of his own relatives.

The narrator’s life becomes increasingly intolerable.  Employment opportunities dry up and in one memorable chapter he has to part from his parents.  In a heart-rendingly simple but powerful passage he writes of his father’s rucksack which is being packed with essential possessions for an unnamed journey.  His father pretends that he has packed it “as though he had merely  done it to fill in the time, because he had nothing better to do at the moment”.  The narrator says, “You might have packed one for me too”, only to hear his father reply, “You don’t need one.  What you need is a suitcase”, presumably referring to the Kinder-transport which would take so many  Jewish children off to the west.  Keilson ends this chapter with the prayer,

O God, in the last hour of him whom you sent me as my adversary, I ask you out of a humble heart; why did you create rucksacks, with which to send old people out into your beautiful world to a dreadful end?  Why did you let them go, why did you permit others to let them go?  You created an adversary for me, and I understand his fate more profoundly since he became my fate, greater than I ever imagined. . .

He questions whether the adversary is a scourge sent by God, in which case it become impossible to avoid killing God as well as “the other one, the adversary”.

At least 50 pages of this book were written before 1945 and Keilson captures a sense of the hurt and shame of the narrator as the society in which he lives become increasingly inhospitable.  By removing dates, locations and names, Keilson seems to universalise the rise of Nazism making the book a warning to all societies of how easily authoritarian regimes can come to power.  This universal intention is strengthened by the use of metaphor and story within the novel giving it an almost mythic or legendary quality.

man's searchAs well as a writer, Keilson is known for his research into the effects of trauma on children and did much work on the impact of trauma on Holocaust survivors.  His work sits very well alongside Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor himself whose book Man’s Search for Meaning shows the importance of finding meaning and a reason for living in all forms of existence.

I believe that it is important that books like this should not be lost in the mists of time and I am pleased that Vintage books republished Death of an Adversary a couple of years ago.

A very informative 2010 article on Hans Keilson can be found in the online journal Tablet.  Philip Olterman conducted a fascinating interview with him just before his death which can be found in The Guardian.

9 thoughts on “Review: The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

  1. This sounds really good.

    I have always been fascinating why and how people become seduced by oppressive and brutal ideologies and regimes. The fact that author lived through this on the receiving end gives it enormous credibility.


  2. This in a way reminds me of Primo Levi’s writing,particularly The Periodic Table & Is this a man. In fact if I recall, Levi said that it was
    Auschwitz that turned him into a writer.


  3. I chose this as one of the titles for my Literature and War Readalong and I’m really looking forward to it. If I’m not mistaken they just published some of his memoirs recently (in German) and they looked very good.


    • Caroline – thanks for visiting. I think I saw this one on the literature and war page actually, but I’m not good at reading things to order so just grabbed a copy from the library. It’s a very interesting book and presents a new perspective on the period


  4. I have never heard of this author, but just checked Amazon, and indeed it is available in the U.S. in an FSG edition.

    Translation to be one of your subjects, so I am making a list from your blog. One of the benefits of the internet! I always mean to read more books in translation–well, I just read some Arthur Schnitzler, but his stuff is available at– and often pick up NYRBs or Europas, but for some reason German fiction seems not to be favored in the U.S. anymore.

    Thanks for writing about this book!


    • Hi Kat – thanks for visiting. Yes, I do read quite a bit of translated fiction – about 35% of my reading last year but much higher over the last month for some unknown reason. I don’t know Schnitzler but he looks interesting. NYRB is a great publisher and I can get hold of them on Amazon UK, but rather pricey.


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