Death in Rome is a profound and thought-provoking novel written in the mid-fifties. While set against the backdrop of Rome, the main theme is a portrayal of the early after-war German society. It is a remarkable book for several reasons. When first published, it was either criticized or, more commonly, ignored only to be praised a few years later by some of Germany's great authors such as Grass and Boll. Death in Rome was the third book of a trilogy, written by Koeppen in quick succession at the time - all addressing aspects of the "new" Germany. It was followed by 40 years of literary silence, except for travel writings and a short autobiography of his youth. Nevertheless, he is now regarded as one of the best German literary authors and his work has experienced a revival since his death in 1996.
The members of one family meet, more or less by chance, in Rome. The protagonists each personify one aspect of German society: the military, the bureaucracy, religion and art. Koeppen weaves the complex story around an unrepentant former SS man, a then and now middle-level bureaucrat, a young priest and a young composer. The latter two being the sons of the older generation. Symbolism and mythology meet the reader everywhere. The links between Germany and Rome are multifaceted, reaching well back in time. The main characters' names were selected for their meanings: Judejahn for the SS man and Adolf for his priestly son. Siegfried, his young, gay composer cousin, explores experimental music that was forbidden during the Nazi period. He also befriends a conductor and his Jewish wife who had escaped the camps.
There are different levels of connections between the different characters as they move in and out of focus of the story line. One is reminded of a ballet or a complicated but well-structured dance where each participant performs his or her part without seeing the overall picture that unfolds for the reader. Rome in its decaying beauty is treated almost like one of the characters in this composition. Koeppen underlines the intricate choreography by leading from one element in the story to another, often interrupting in the middle of a sentence only to complete it in a different scenario. The language also moves from factual detailed descriptions of events to intimate reflections and analysis of characters. For example, Judejahn is not all that he appears and his contradictions are explored through flash-backs to his youth. His wife Eva would rather see him as a dead hero of the past than as a survivor who is at odds with the present. In many ways, Siegfried represents the centre of the narrative and his voice alternates with that of the author. Still, he is not without his own demons. Both he and Adolf attempt to distance themselves, physically and mentally, from their parents and what they represent. However, given their upbringing, can they really escape?
Death in Rome must have been an uncomfortable book for Koeppen's contemporaries who felt it easier to put the book aside than to confront the issues it exposed. Reading the novel today with the advantage of historical perspective, it has to be seen as one of the first successful efforts to critique German society as it emerged from the Nazi period. This novel is an engaging, if disturbing, read. I regret that I didn't know about this and the other books in the trilogy in my younger years. Still, Death in Rome is as powerful a book now as it was when it was first published and should be recommended to readers of all ages interested in recent European history. [Friederike Knabe]