Book review - The Death of the Adversary

by Hans Keilson, trans. Ivo Jarosy

Vintage Classics, £12.99,

Hans Keilson, who died this week aged 101, first published this semi-autobiographical novel in 1959. It recreates the rise and fall of Hitler and offers a poignant account of the profound effects of a life under tyranny. A boy grows up during the rise of fascism in 1920s Germany. At the age of ten, he first becomes aware of the "adversary" whom he refers to as "B". Although the boy never mentions that he is Jewish, nor that the adversary is Hitler, this becomes apparent. He begins to be ostracised by his schoolfellows and overhears his parents' anxious whispers about the future.

One day at school he is confronted with an image of his adversary and stares uncomprehendingly at this "lifeless picture" that "sunk its claws into my flesh... The more I tried to shake myself free, the worse the pain became. Unblinkingly I stared into this mirror, until I believed that I could recognise there my own image".

As a young man, he watches as the Nazis gain power. Throughout, the narrator attempts to understand where their hatred has come from and what compels their violence. One of the most powerful chapters takes place in the home of a woman with whom the narrator works at a department store. Her brother arrives back unexpectedly with three friends. The youngest of them describes how the previous night he had participated in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery. Merely a boy, he boasts of how this frenzied act of vandalism "made the murder of a living person seem more comprehensible and less repellent".

The narrator sits and listens, unable to leave or to make a stand. Instead, he muses to himself, sadly: "It must be a desperate love that demands or permits the desecration of corpses and the devastation of cemeteries at the dead of night." He contrasts this with his own "weak, cowardly, dishonourable hatred... filled with as much dread of its own cold possibilities, its own cruelty and devastation."

In weighing up the different responses of his fellow men and measuring them against his own reactions, he highlights the speed with which threats can become a terrifying reality. He poignantly recalls the last days of his father and the rucksack he packed in anticipation of being taken away. Even then the full horror of what awaited them was inconceivable.

Not published in English since 1962 (and newly translated by Ivo Jarosy), The Death of the Adversary ends with a twist that echoes Keilson's own life. He heeded the warnings, emigrated to the Netherlands in 1936, and joined the Dutch Resistance. He paints his protagonist as an ordinary man struggling to comprehend the unimaginable, who finally finds a way to resist, becoming a quiet hero of the times.

Originally published in the Independent Friday, 3 June 2011