Hans Keilson: The Death of the Adversary – Der Tod des Widersachers (1959) Literature and War Readalong November 2013

Death of the Adversary

I wish it hadn’t happened but it did. I couldn’t finish Hans Keilson’s novel The Death of the AdversaryDer Tod des Widersachers. Not because I ran out of time but because – frankly – I hated it. I hate parables and books that whiff of Kafka (and are not Kafka) and  . . . If  you want to write about Nazism and the rise of Hitler, why don’t you mention it. Why does Hitler have to be referred to as “B”? Why is it never stated that the narrator is Jewish . . . It’s obvious, of course, but the way this is handled is just annoying.  Ilse Aichinger does a similar thing in her novel Herod’s ChildrenDie grössere Hoffnung, but it never feels like mannerism, it’s powerful, expressive and chilling.

I’ve read about 2/3 of The Death of the Adversary and there were passages I thought masterful but they had nothing to do with Nazism and/or oppression but were mainly taken from either childhood or young adult memories. There is a story in which the narrator tells how he forged stamps. This was psychologically subtle. There are other instances in which we see that Keilson’s observations are the result of his being a psychiatrist.

The book’s central story tells how a young Jewish boy first learns about his adversary “B”, a man who slowly rises to political power. His power can be felt in the growing number of followers and how they accept his theories and apply his laws and rules, which first lead to exclusion of the Jews, and then to their persecution. I don’t see what is gained in calling Hitler “B”. Did he want to show the universality of evil? He wanted to show the banality of it, which becomes obvious when he sees the man. And the way he treats the adversary as a recurring motif, showing that he is  s much on the inside as on the outside  . . .  Most of the time, I agree, things are not black or white but I don’t want this concept applied to Hitler and Nazism.

There is also a parable-in-the-parable – the story of the elks and the wolves, which I found particularly ambiguous. Elks were living under the best conditions, however they were not striving but dying. Why? Because there were no wolves. In order to live they would have needed adversaries.

I almost always finish books because some stories need every single passage to become a whole. Given that The Death of the Adversary is not only a parable but a disjointed book – I wouldn’t really call it a novel -,  I’m pretty sure, the end wouldn’t have made me think differently. From what I’ve seen so far, Keilson might be a good writer but he’s not a novelist.

I know that I’m one of a very few who didn’t like this book. But I really didn’t and although I’m sure that Comedy in a Minor Key is different – I’m not going anywhere near Keilson’s fictional work  for a while.

Other (favorable) reviews

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Mel u (The Reading Life)


The Death of the Adversary was the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the Vietnamese novel The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu by Bao Ninh. Discussion starts on Monday 30 December, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.