There is something about reading a book in one sitting. Or if not in one sitting, in the same place with no change of locale. A few years back, I took a cross country train trip book-ended by a bus ride and a flight home. It was during this trip, as the Texas Eagle crossed the Mississippi and traversed the southwest en route to LA, that I started and finished Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down,” despite a friends warning to avoid the book. She was right.
Last week, in what might have been a haze of nostalgia and the not-so-warm New England sun, I rode the Boston T for a few hours. During this inter-city exploration, I started and finished Hans Keilson’s “Comedy in a minor key.” Despite being written in 1947, it was translated into English just last year. Set in World War II occupied Netherlands, it is the story of a married couple, Wim and Marie, who hide a Jewish man, Nico, in an upstairs bedroom in their home.
The novel revolves about Nico’s death from a long illness. Nico, who had spent a year in hiding with this couple, ends up dying in the middle of the war from natural causes. Already uncertain who to trust, Wim and Marie struggle to find a way to get rid of Nico’s body in a way that protects them and the same time is respectful of their former houseguest.
Despite running a mere 135 pages and housing no more than 10 or 15 characters, Keilson’s novel (novella? Didn’t do a word count, sorry!) addresses how different types of people, in times of war, embrace patriotism and rationalize breaking the laws of the land when it is the moral thing to do.
While the war is being fought with bomber planes flying over the Dutch cities, and the Holocaust casts a shadow over the characters’ actions, Keilson reminds his readers that life continues. The routines of humanity, in some ways, go unbroken. Accidental deaths, death caused by natural causes, the discovery of love between two individuals, the manifestation of that feeling in marriage and child birth continue. And that is what Wim and Marie, as well as Nico, embody.
Not for nothing, Han Keilson, a member of the Dutch Resistance in World War II who went into hiding at one point during the war, is still alive at the age of 101 years old. Unfortunately, he is not on Twitter. But his writing is exemplary and “Comedy in a minor key” is a must-read book.