Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Comedy in a Minor Key - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 44

For the 44th week of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I read Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson.

Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of Wim and Marie, a young Dutch couple, who conceal Nico (a Jewish perfume salesman) in their spare bedroom for a year during World War II.

For Wim and Marie, they agree to take on this responsibility out of neighborly kindness and a sense of decency rather than a response to injustice or political passion. As Marie said, "Things happen sometimes, with these accidental combinations....We're all only human, and it lasts so long."

Because they aren't experienced in housing a stranger on the run from the enemy, Wim and Marie awkwardly move through each day.  The relationship between Wim, Marie, and Nico develops from being strangers to awkward intimates. Despite the closeness, there is a cloud of tension in the home, owing partly to the concern that Nico will be discovered.

Concurrently, Nico experiences a change in his mental condition. "Since he couldn't demand anything of the outer world  - what he did receive was freely offered, almost a gift - his demands turned inward and more and more excessive.  But people were helping him, they were helping him, didn't that mean anything? Yes, it meant a lot. And it was also nothing. He was turning into nothing. It was unbearable."

Nico continued, "It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it - maybe - saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly."

Gradually, Nico's health declines. He is ashen, gaunt, emaciated, feverish, and dressed in pajamas, and eventually dies. Essentially, his same slow death is similar to that of his compatriots who live in concentration camps.

Wim and Marie are at a loss for how to dispose of the body as well as handle the situation for their own safety. Unfortunately, in the confusion of removing the body from the home, Wim and Marie make a mistake that can tie Nico to them.  Thus, Wim and Marie must go into hiding. Ironically, they now know what it is like to be both rootless and deeply afraid.

Comedy in a Minor Key is an excellent character study of the human condition - addressing fear and risk; the problem of being saved yet imprisoned; the satisfaction of doing the right thing and, ultimately, disappointment.

Marie had always hoped that Wim, Nico, and she would be able to leave the house together triumphantly on Liberation Day. However, Nico's death cheats her of that satisfaction. It's that irony of the entire situation that leads the author to call this book a comedy, but in a sad way.

Comedy in a Minor Key provides an intriguing look at the way lives are changed and influenced through the circumstances of life; and how we may never truly be able to understand someone until we are in their place and experiencing their nightmare.

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