A comedy with not a single laugh

Our roving correspondent, Bob Moyer, takes a look at a 1947 novel by a German Jew. The book was translated into English in 2010. This novel travels some of the same territory as Anne Frank’s famous diary, but from very different perspectives.

By Robert Moyer

COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY. By Hans Keilson. Farrar Straus Giroux. 135 pages. $22.

Be forewarned – there is not a single laugh in this short novel about a Dutch couple who hide a Jew in their home during the Holocaust. It has been said that it took an average of 27 people to protect a single Jew but only one to reveal him. First published in 1947, this brief story successfully captures the tension in the day-to-day difficulties in the dissembling required to save that single Jew from the Nazis.Nico is the only name Wim and Marie know him by, one of the unfortunate people who became  “…the focal point and bull’s-eye for all the poisoned arrows being shot at him from beyond life.” At first, he feels safe in their small home; however, the severe limitations on his movements, and threats of being revealed reduce him to the “…helpless fear that comes from nothingness.”  The ring of the doorbell, the cleaning woman’s visit, the milkman’s inquisitiveness – the pressure accumulates throughout the narrative. Soon, his gratitude takes on another tenor – hatred for his saviors:  “The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly.”

For their part, Wim and Marie also suffer as time passes. Nico’s behavior stood “…like a wall between him and them, which slowly, slowly crumbled as the war dragged on and everything aberrant and inhuman became typical and everyday.” Their difficulties and fears are compounded when Nico takes ill and dies – what will they do with the body?  The “comedy” of the title arises from Marie’s comparison of his death to a play: “It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage … from the right. And out he comes from the left.”  Poor Nico had defended himself against death from without, and then “it had carried him off from within.”

Only when the body has been disposed of and subsequently discovered can Marie allow herself a sense of relief; “In her grief at his death, which broke through fully for the first time now that her fear was gone, there was mixed in a feeling of happiness, of satisfaction, that someone had found him and that nothing more could happen to him now.”

With minimal melodrama and maximum nuance, the author has caught in the idiosyncrasies of an individual case the tragedy of countless anonymous victims.