Sunday, October 16, 2011

Comedy in a Minor Key

How do you do dispose of a body you aren’t supposed to have in the first place?

That is the central problem for Wim and Marie, an average young Dutch couple who agree to hide a Jewish man, Nico, during the Nazi occupation. And then he dies.

Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key is a slim, somewhat simple novel that easily shows the anxiety and issues arising from having someone in your house that you aren’t supposed to have in your house. At first they think that they can do it without anyone knowing, including family and the cleaning lady. But slowly – purposefully and accidently – a lot of people end up knowing. Through it, they come to learn that many of their own circle that they thought they knew well were also concealing secrets – which end up helping them in the end.

What I liked most about this novel is the averageness of its characters. Wim and Marie don’t take Nico in out of some high purpose…there isn’t any moralizing about “the right thing to do,” or Schindler’s breakdown (“I could have done so much more!”). They do it because it has to be done, out of some vague sense of duty to their country. Someone asks them and they say, well sure. And Nico is so ordinary himself…a single perfume salesman, parents are dead, and no real relatives or importance. As much, I suppose, as any person could be said to be unimportant.

That Nico died in such an ordinary way underscores this. There is a sense that he didn’t need to go into hiding just to die from an illness; he went into hiding so he could live - so the three of them could come out the other side. That comedic irony, as well as the simple way in which his disposal is bungled (a mere oversight of a monogram and a laundry tag on a pair of pajamas) is what makes this novel almost humorous. It has a slapstick, Waiting for Godot quality about it. One review I came across called the novel’s subject the “goofy, quotidian kindness that is one possible response to violence.” The everyday-ness of the novel, the, “yeah, sure we’ll do that” is what’s amazing. There aren’t many light-hearted novels on this subject.

Comedy in a Minor Key is a small novel that doesn’t deal with any of the larger issues that I have come to expect in a story of occupied Europe. It’s about muddling through and figuring it out as you go along. But perhaps its publication in 1947 is a reason for that – it takes decades to truly process the totality of such a disaster. At this point I could start to go on angrily about our expectations of the 9/11 novel by extension, but I’ll save that for another post. It’s perhaps the ordinary stories that often come first, the stories that would be familiar to most people. The overarching epics that make us proud to be humans – in spite of what we humans sometimes do to one another – seem to come later.