Saturday, 28 September 2013

THE DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY by Hans Keilson


THE DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY is frequently described as a 'lost classic' of twentieth century fiction. Forgotten by the world, it was re-discovered when a well known translator was digging around in a bargain bin in an Austrian bookstore, and came across it, thinking it was something else. Now, in my experience, anything that needs to be 'rediscovered' always sets off alarm bells. Why is it lost? Who lost it? Somehow no ones ever been able to lose HAMLET.

THE DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY is a lightly autobiographical tale about the rise of Hitler. It tells the story of young Jewish man whose life is increasingly circumscribed by the growth of Nazism. Deeply annoyingly, the author never actually mentions Hitler by name, but instead refers to him as the 'adversary' in an awkwardly 'poetic' manner throughout. During and immediately after reading this book, I sort of hated it. I didn't know how the New York Times could call it a 'masterpiece' and Hans Kielson a 'genius.' Weirdly though, as time has gone past, I find sections of the book remain absolutely clear in my memory. I find myself occasionally thinking of scenes, or characters, and wondering what book they're from, and then realising: oh yah, it's that Adversary thing I hated.

There's a scene in which the main character meets some strangers, and one of them tells a long story about how he was sent with a bunch of young Nazis to defile a Jewish cemetery. At the time, I was kind of annoyed by this chapter long digression from a character we'll never meet again. Now though, I find that the whole cemetery episode stays with me, for it's sad depiction of how hard it was for the young Nazis to actually bring themselves to poop on graves, and knock over childrens' tombstones. I also recall the main character's account of his parents' attempts to prepare for the coming of the Nazis, which involved packing backpacks with chocolate bars and hand cream, with no real idea why they might need them, as if they might soon be going camping.

Frankly I'm oddly conflicted. I hated it at the time, but I like it in retrospect. Sort of the reverse of a bad breakup.

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