There seems to be no end of books inspired by World War II, no doubt because we still have truths to absorb and lessons to learn from that conflict. This, at least, was the sense I had after reading Hans Keilson’s haunting novella, Comedy In A Minor Key. The author, a psychotherapist, fought in the Dutch resistance and died this year at the age of 101, outliving by many years the trauma that shaped his life. Kielson writes with gentle irony about the everyday domestic routines that hold insanity at bay during wartime. Yet out of the calm of an ordinary household, he weaves a story of dark humour and edge-of-the-seat suspense.
His story is set during the Nazi occupation of Holland, where a young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, hide a Jewish man, Nico. Only the most trustworthy people know about their guest, and the chronic fear of discovery seeps into the mood of a tranquil home. The cleaning lady runs into Nico as he peeks out of his room; later, the co-operative doctor who comes to tend the ailing fugitive has to find an alibi for his frequent visits. Yet instead of discovery and death at the hands of his Nazi foes, Nico meets an ordinary fate when he dies of pneumonia and Wim and the doctor are left to dispose of the body in the dead of night. Successful in this nerve-wracking task , Wim’s informed by Marie of a glitch in their plan that would have been comic, had it not put their lives in danger. Now the roles are reversed; their Jewish guest is safe in death and his hosts are on the run.
What makes this small book so compelling is its quiet tone, its depiction of the ordinary lives of two gentle people whose simple domesticity is juxtaposed with an exterior madness that we feel but never see. Tea and laundry, stacking wood and setting the table keep harsh realities at a distance: the far-off rumble of Allied bombers, the awareness that their country is under occupation, the knowledge that the world outside the house is full of suspicion and dread. That troubled world is mirrored in the upstairs room where Nico is in hiding. Yet the writing conveys a mood of tranquility, while Nico’s presence disturbs the calm surface with an undertow of tension. That tug-and-pull makes for gripping reading.
Wim and Marie’s home shelters them in domesticity, and the calm deliberation in which they carry out their daily tasks allows a glimpse into the brave souls of the two main characters — and by extension, into the lives of many ordinary people who endured the war’s privations with strength and patience. It’s only when the couple flees their home that the reader senses the strains that circumstances have placed in their otherwise loving relationship. Their crisis ends, and in a beautiful scene during the evening blackout, they return home to touch and reclaim in darkness all that was once familiar and visible, all that must be understood in a new and poignant way.
Both ironic and tender, this novella is a nuanced exploration of a time in history that still has much to tell us about unimaginable bravery and the simple tasks of everyday that see us through the night.
Comedy in A Minor Key by Hans Keilson was translated from the German by Damion Searls and published in 2010 by Farrar Strauss and Giroux (New York).