Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Death of the Adversary

I've read a fair number of books about the Second World War, but I can't remember reading one quite like Hans Keilson's Death of the Adversary.

I came to this novel by way of Francine Prose's review in The New York Times - a review which declared the book "a masterpiece" and Keilson a "genius." In the end, the novel - and its author - are as Prose suggests: masterful.

Death of the Adversary charts the experiences of an unnamed German Jew, who, by way of his written reflections, develops a complex emotional relationship with his "enemy." Like his adversary, however, the Jew is never properly identified. That is: we recognize, without having been told, that the Jew is Jewish and that his enemy is Hitler.

The fact that this information is never made explicit endows Keilson's novel with an ethereal quality - as if, at any moment, both characters might fade away. Death does not discriminate, he implies, though we wish it would.

While Adversary takes the Second World War as its subject, it is distinct, for instance, from Sebald’s Austerlitz. The darkness embedded in Keilson’s book is built on pyschological distress; it is a novel that exists in the mind and tangled thoughts of its nameless central character. Austerlitz functions in a similar fashion, it’s true, but for Sebald, that darkness is a function of plot, of action, of tortured discovery.

In the end, Death of the Adversary is a novel in search of oblivion - which is where it finds itself when Keilson concedes that beauty is as ordinary as enmity.

The last word is reserved for him:

“Enemies will never die out in this world," he writes. "They are recruited from former friends.”

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