translated from German by Damion Searls 2010
[WW2, Rotterdam. Nico, a perfume salesman, is being hidden by Marie and Wim. Marie’s sister Coba comes over]
Coba and Nico were on a first-name basis right away. She was in her late 20s. The next time she brought him new books in English and French, detective novels and others.
‘When this is all over, Nico, Marie and I get a lifetime supply of perfume from you, agreed?’
‘Nuit de Paris. Romance for the lady in the evening…’
‘Not just in the evening, Nico, I’m a lady all day long - ’
He went on: ‘Violetta, Sans-Gene for afternoons, and some mornings, for fashion shows…’
‘I’ve never been to a fashion show myself,’ Marie said.
The names that used to waft from his lips, sleek and melodious like magic formulas, now sounded perfectly ordinary and strangely fresh, unused. They too once were, and one day would be again.
‘Just a drop behind the ear, Marie. Perfume is the visiting card of the lady!’
They laughed. And Nico laughed along with them!
commentary: Francine Prose reviewed this book in the New York Times, and her opening seemed ideal for me too:
For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” and “Comedy in a Minor Key” are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.I haven’t read Death of the Adversary, but I’m sure she’s right because I agree with her so strongly about Comedy in a Minor Key.
I came across this book over at Col’s Criminal Library, and I ordered it straightaway on Col’s reco, though it has taken me a while to get round to it.
It’s a very short book, a novella really, and looks at the lives of a Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, living in Rotterdam during the Second World War. The Netherlands is occupied by the Nazis, and they have agreed to hide a Jewish man Nico, who would otherwise be in danger. We know from the beginning that Nico has died, and the couple and their helpers will have to decide how to dispose of the body. While they consider this, the narrative takes us back over the days that he lived with them – I’m not sure, I think it might be about a year. They were all kind and polite to each other, although occasionally there are complications and issues. There are all kinds of things you might not think of – what about the cleaning lady, what about the amount of food being consumed, will the situation look suspicious to outsiders? What if they are asked by someone else to hide a refugee? – they can’t admit they already have one.
They find out something about the network of people doing the same, and about the dangers.
The book is charming and full of warmth, despite the serious and bleak content. It’s a book that shows you the dark side of life, but then keeps you going by showing the small kindnesses of life, the humanity, and the way people will help each other.
The people in the book become tremendously real. This is Marie:
She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. Everyone would see right away what he was from his pale face… How the neighbours and everyone on the street would look up when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.
This is a five-star book.
Hans Keilson was a German Jew who escaped to the Netherland, where he lived in hiding for a time. His parents died at Auschwitz.
The perfume bottle is a French antique and held Nuits de Paris.
The top b/w photo from the Dutch National Archives shows Queen Wilhelmina opening a shelter for sailors in 1941.
The second b/w photo, same source, shows, exactly, Liberation Day in Amsterdam. Sadly, this event was not the happy moment it should have been: these people are headed for Dam Square where German troops opened fire at the celebrating masses: 22 people were killed, 120 injured.