Review: 'The Death of the Adversary' by Hans Keilson

"His death is enough. Tell!"

"He will fall, Father, like a dead thing, a rotten branch, bare and desiccated, whihc a mountain stream sweeps down into the abyss. Or like a stone, cold and hardened against the perils of a fall through the blind night, leaving no luminous trail that could one day light torches in the memory, before it buries itself in the soil of the steppes which no human or animal foot will ever tread. Such will be his death: bare and unfruitful, like the avalanche of stones under which he lies anonymously buried, the refuse of extinct planets, and there is nothing more to tell."

Hans Keilson's 'The Death of the Adversary' is a very strange book. 

Throughout its 208 page, the narrator remains vague and nameless, cities are known only by initials, the country is never referred to and the adversary is never given an identity beyond that. It's a mysterious book strangely lacking in Proper Nouns or concrete ties, that might lock it down to a country, an era, a place.

If you didn't know better, you'd think it was some kind of dystophian coming-of-age story in which the young man pits himself against some kind of Big Brother, where the adversary is a known person and the narrator is one of a persecuted mass. Of course, though, we all do know better - we have all heard of WWII, after all - and then it becomes a bleak and horrifying look at the diabolical relationship between Hitler and the Jews of Germany, of which Hans Keilson was one.

It's a unique (as far as my knowledge goes) and genius feat of writing which cleverly reels you in, with you thinking 'Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust', but then, because it is not referred to by any name, and the words 'Germany', 'Jewish' or 'Hitler' never feature, I found that I would forget for a couple of pages, or for a chapter, what I was actually reading about. Then, something would happen or something would twinge, and I'd be quite overwhelmed by the sudden re-realisation that this actually happened to people not very long ago, and that this is a first hand account. The telling of it this way makes it shocking anew, and that is something I have never experienced in quite the same way before.

What's also very unusual about this book is the way that it illustrates the development of hatred in two adversaries who never actually meet, apart from when the narrator sees Hitler in person as he passes in a car through a parade, and the way this inescapably changes them before the first personal strikes are made. We experience an early speech of Hitler's through the ears of the narrator, and I think it was possibly one of the most powerful things I've ever read in prose:

"It was into this soundless tension that his first words dropped. They did not destroy the silence; no, they were so much part of it that it seemed as though they arose out of it. Rarely have I heard a human voice speak into so tense a silence. It sounded like a voice from the grave-deep, dark, and a little uncanny. A shudder ran down my back. One hears a voice like this with one's whole body...

...The voice oppressed me and fascinated me at the same time. In a different way from what went before, it now seemed to contain a message, addressed to me personally. Again there seemed to be some kind of understanding between us. What it was, I could not say. But it had to do with me alone, not with any of his other friends. A small, plain-looking man, in the grip of something stronger than himself, was speaking as though he were strangling himself. He stood there like a damned soul. A torch was wavering at a cross-roads. He had to choose. A destiny approached. Whoever came into contact with him was branded. But he remained small, ambitious, a clerk who would have liked to be the boss...

...During these moments he became alienated from himself, and that which took hold of him was simply alien. But at other times he thought that it was his own self. Then he felt himself as great and strong and irresistible as a river. He began to urge, to scream and to rave. He could not contain himself, he burst his banks. But he did not understand what he was doing. To me he sounded like a drowning man who was screaming for help." 

The language used in this book is also unusual. Yes, it's in translation from the original German, but it's more than that. It uses repetition beautifully to trip you up, to unsettle you, to force across a point. Even in that little quote I just typed out, he uses 'himself', 'he', 'him'  and 'self' too many times for it not to be noticable, and too many times for us not to focus on the horrific minutiae of Hitler as he sees him. All he can see at times is Hitler because he's so much in his way.

Not to give too much of the story away (the detail obv., rather than the main gist), but there's a repetitive sentence about the fate of his parents that is just unforgettable in its sadness and despair, and he repeats it again and again and again, just as it happened, I guess.

So, in conclusion, this is a strange, unique, powerful book, this at times feels a lot like stumbling upon a ghastly rabbit hole and sticking your head through to the past. It's a testament to the power of prose and a reaffirmation of the truth that the more specifically you describe something, the more readily you can apply it to the many. I've put it back on the shelf with a feeling of very wary respect - this was not a comfortable book to read, but really, how could it be, if it says what it set out to say?

Quite simply, it's a masterpiece.

Title: The Death of the Adversary
Author: Hans Keilson

Publisher: Vintage Classics

Year of Publication: This edition, 2011; original edition, 1959; translation copyright, 1962

Format: Hardback, 208 pages, and I was given it about 8 months ago (although didn't read it til December) at
Vintage Classics Day.


  1. Ironic that this prose should also pull so strongly on Gustave Le Bon's work on crowd psychology, that was the basis for much of Mein Kampf.

  2. I'm sure that's the case, but as I haven't read either, I wouldn't know.

    I guess it would make sense that they'd be alike in some ways though, being two sides of the same coin...


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