Written while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II, The Death of the Adversary is the self-portrait of a young man helplessly fascinated by an unnamed “adversary” whom he watches rise to power in 1930s Germany. It is a tale of horror, not only in its evocation of Hitler’s gathering menace but also in its hero’s desperate attempt to discover logic where none exists.
A psychological fable as wry and haunting as Badenheim 1939, The Death of the Adversary is a lost classic of modern fiction.
“The Death of the Adversary” is a chilling view of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hans Keilson never mentions the word Jew, Hitler, or Germany in his novel about the 1930s but notions of history inform the listener of what Keilson is writing about. Names are not named because Keilson writes the story while hiding during WWII. He flees Germany to join the Dutch resistance when denied the opportunity to practice medicine as a Jew.
The main character of Keilson’s novel refuses to believe his father, or acquaintances at work and school, of the threat of an unnamed adversary in his home country. This anti-hero pursues his life as though the threat of State terror would pass without affecting his life. However, as events unfold, the anti-hero hears the radio voice of “…the Adversary” and begins to understand the underlying murderous intent of a charismatic political actor who will turn the country’s lives upside down. Keilson writes of a speech given by “…the Adversary” to give the reader/listener some insight to the power of words in the hands of a consummate actor. “The power of words” is a terrifying realization to the anti-hero. The realized terror is that spoken words by one actor can lead to a genocidal mania on the part of a chosen people.
The final chapters offer the anti-hero the opportunity to kill “…the Adversary”. He chooses not to and history shows his decision to be both right and wrong. It is right in light of the ultimate death of “…the Adversary” because of actions of others to stop his reign of terror. It seems wrong because of the death of many (particularly the anti-hero’s parents), and his failure to confront “…the Adversary” before it was too late. Keilson makes a fine and ironic point by having the anti-hero murdered before escaping the country.
One is compelled to wonder about oneself in listening to Keilson’s story. Who will choose to confront the adversary? Who will “go along to get along”?
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