It’s Holland during WWII. There is a blackout each night because of the air raids. Wim and Marie lead a quiet life other wise. Wim goes off to work each day as a bookkeeper, and Marie keeps the house. One day someone comes to them, and asks if they’d like to ‘do their part’. They agree. During the war, in Holland, doing your part meant hiding people endangered by the times. Mostly jews, but not only jews. Wim and Marie are brought a jew, a former perfume salesman of all things (one of many very subtle ironic touches in the novella), who asks them to call him Nico.
Even though there are many families doing the same thing, one cannot trust anybody. Nico lives ‘upstairs’ in a small room and very rarely, goes out. If he does it’s only at certain times of the year and only at night. But for the most part, Nico is stuck inside, and stuck mostly in his small room, waiting for the war to end. Other than that the three live like a family. Nico joins them for dinner, Marie brings him tea, they discuss various topics, but mostly they all express their desire for ‘it’ to be over. For the war to end, so things can get back to ‘normal’.
Eventually Wim’s sister Coba is brought in to their confidence. And at one point their cleaning lady discovers Nico, but says nothing – not even to the family. Wim and Marie are not freedom fighters, not members of any underground armed resistance. They are merely Dutch citizens trying to help out – do their part. They are not all that sure that they want to get involved in the activity they undertake, but are almost shamed into agreeing. Having done so, they ‘make the best of it’. Making the best of it seems to be their way of life, their mantra. Not so different than the rest of us. These are ordinary people, and the author’s intent was to show ordinary people, not doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary, even mundane things.
Then Nico contracts pneumonia, weakens and dies. This is not a spoiler, since this fact is known from the start, as the novel circles back to the beginning. A doctor had been brought in to treat Nico, and with the death, helps them dispose of the body: stripped of his fever soaked pajamas, dressed in a pair of freshly laundered ones (Wim’s) and left in the park to be discovered (it’s winter). This deeply troubles them, especially Marie, who has grown fond of Nico, but there are no other real options. They still live after all, in constant fear of being discovered. The consequences of discovery were unknown, but are potentially severe. Nico’s death has also robbed these ordinary people of a sense of heightened awareness. Bookkeeper’s and their wives don’t normally live with a sense of imminent danger, of adventure. Nico’s death has even robbed them of a small victory of anticipation. They had dreamed of liberation, and walking outside with their harbored victim, would certainly have capped their victory for all to see.
There is a plot twist at the end that adds to the couple’s understanding of Nico’s plight. There but for the grace of….
Hans Keilson’s short novella was originally published in 1947 (the same year as Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank’s diary), but has only recently been translated. Keilson, now 101 years of age, still lives outside of Amsterdam with his wife. Keilson himself was a German jew who had fled Germany in 1936 to Holland – not far enough away from the Nazi scourge as it turned out, and was hidden by a Dutch couple (to whom this book is dedicated) for a time during the war. In fact, he actually started the novel when he was in hiding. But Keilson doesn’t write from the perspective of the ‘hidden’, he writes it from the perspective of the ‘hiders’. One can imagine how a trained psychiatrist (as Keilson was) would have taken this perspective. What were their motives? What were their fears? How did they see themselves in their relationship to the person they harbored? So this is not a holocaust book, but a novella about the little people whom the tsunami of history overpowers, yet who are left on the beach as the tides recede.
The “minor key” of the title refers to the nature of the players. In the scheme of things, these people (Wim and Marie) are typical of most of us – those whom history will overlook, except in the broadest sense. The “comedy” comes from the very nature of the situation they find themselves in: awkward, struggling to understand, questioning. These things naturally lead to some ‘minor’ humor at the very core of the relationship. For the Dutch couple (but more on the part of Marie), it’s a struggle to understand, and a real self-discovery plays itself out as a result.
As they had shared everything with Nico while he was alive, they assume that he shared what little he had with them as well. So it is quite surprising to Marie when after Nico’s death she discovers amongst his few possessions, some hard to come by American tobacco! How ungrateful! But as she sifts through this, she comes to understand the nature of his ‘beholdenness’ to them. Man cannot live owing everything to a higher authority, to be totally dependent on another for his very existence, his succor. The tobacco, was his and his alone, and was a precious reminder that he had, once had, and may again, have a life of his own, with his own things, his own dreams and desires. The dignity of small things.
The Loneliness of Loneliness
…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. It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it – maybe – saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly to 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.
How proudly they had given him this room, how gratefully he had received it. How imprisoned, abandoned, and wretched he had felt in it. The loneliness of loneliness.