By Chet Yarbrough
Comedy in a Minor Key
By Hans Keilson, Translated by Damion Searles
Narrated by James Clamp
HANS KEILSON (1909-2011, JEWISH GERMAN-DUTCH NOVELIST, POET, PSYCHOANALYST, AND CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST)
“The horror, the horror…” from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness creeps into your mind when listening to Hans Keilson’s story of a German Jew that is hidden by a young married couple in Nazi Germany.
Keilson is long gone and little remembered but this story places you in a small two story house, in an upstairs bedroom with the shades drawn, in a grim scene of anxiety and despair. James Clamp has a perfectly accented voice for this tale of gloom because he does not over dramatize Keilson’s words but gives them a solemn and poignant believability.
The names of the three main characters of this novel are gone from your mind as soon as the last page is read but the truth of the story sticks with you.
The truth of what dehumanizing a creed, a race, or religion can lead to. The idea recurs to you when you listen to books like The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard Evans recounting the systematic vilification and slaughter of 6,000,000 souls.
In listening to Keilson’s story there is the thought that history is a reflection of an eternal return. Vilification of human beings as the “other” rather than one of us repeats in every nation of the world. Today it is Ukrainians to Russia’s government, Uighurs to China’s government, Muslims to India’s government, Palestinians to Israel’s government, Americans to Iran’s government, immigrants to America’s and most of the world’s governments, and so on, and so on.
This is a story that shows how any society can devolve into a repressive, barbaric, totalitarian state but still bare witness to individual and small human conclaves of bravery, compassion, and humanity.
The comedy is in the irony of being raised in the same culture and knowing that what is happening is wrong and not being able to stop it. The comedy is compounded with the realization that stopping evil, wrought by a totalitarian state, is dependent on individual action (a minor key in a major production).
You cannot help but empathize with the trauma that one must feel when choosing to fight what is wrong when it may mean the end of your life, not necessarily death, but the complete change of your circumstance of living.
The married couple hiding a Jew makes a small mistake that forces them to leave their home; their job; their life, as they have been living it, to escape the consequence of their action. It is an ironic little comedy because it turns out the minor mistake is purposely ignored by the German investigator; a character that resists the out of control culture that he is a part of.
Except for the death of innocence, the story has a happy ending with the married couple returning to their home to begin again. One wonders if beginning again means they will continue to be protectors of the innocent; to be human in a culture that slips into organized genocide, destruction, and hate.
This is a short book, more of a novella, but it tells a big story that resonates in our own history and the history of all humanity.