Title: Comedy in a Minor Key
Author: Hans Keilson
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Publisher: Hesperus Press
PP: 112 pages
I believe in the cliché “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Too often over the years, a book has made me feel like the author was being paid by the word. I appreciate books whose author doesn’t waste words; Comedy in a Minor Key is a perfect example to me of how succinctness doesn’t have to compromise the story, and in fact, how succinctness can work in the favor of a story’s overall construct.
The book tells the story of a Dutch couple (Wim and Marie) during WWII who are providing secret housing for a middle-aged Jewish man (Nico), but who then must find a way to dispose of his body when he dies of pneumonia in their care. Even though the book was written in 1947, the book spends no unnecessary time explaining the context of their dilemma and assumes the reader knows what happened in the Netherlands during WWII, and what the inherent dangers of their predicament were.
Barely 135 pages, Comedy in a Minor Key is a subtle, compassionate, richly human story with more complexity and mystery than one would think was possible to sneak into such a slim, matter of fact volume. “Wim slowly regained his usual composure. Even if he was the younger man here, he was still the host, and that brought with it various responsibilities. He felt that the other man had understood precisely the reasons for Wim’s initial discomfort and that he had made an effort to dispel it, even though he found himself in an even less comfortable situation. Wim offered him a cigarette and said, as he lit the match, ‘My wife and I are happy we can do something for you.’” These small true moments reveal the character of people who do the right thing in extreme circumstances, yet maintain the ambiguity and complexity of character and motive that are universal in circumstances great and small, profound and banal.
As a reader I found the story contained poignant passages which serve as displays of the simple kindness and generosity of humans shown towards others facing adversity and torment. There is something very spiritually renewing about this book. I must mention that I failed to see the comedy or wit as the title would lend, being that it would be extremely difficult to find anything humorous about this dark period in world history. Would I read it again? Most definitely.
You can buy the book here on Flipkart