When Koeppen's novels first appeared in Germany in 1951, 1953 and 1954, they were not, as his translators tell us in their introductions, well-received. As Hofmann points out, the literati wanted a clean break from the past, "an extension of collective amnesia." (Death in Rome, vii) But Koeppen refused to go along. Far from forgetting what had transpired from 1933 to 1945, Koeppen made one of the central characters of Death in Rome an unregenerate Nazi, condemned in absentia at Nuremberg and working, under an assumed name, training soldiers for an unspecified Arab government. His wife, living as a widow in Germany, is arguably even more repugnant, nostalgic for the Third Reich and more vicious in her thoughts and opinions than an Amazon. Their brother-in-law has managed to squeak through the Allied occupation without discomfort, once again a respected and admired community leader, now eager to bring about the rehabilitation and repatriation of the criminal. Between them, two men have three sons, one of whom is equally ready to kiss up to or disavow the old Nazi, whichever action will best advance his career. The other two young men have repudiated their pasts and their families. The Nazi's son is a Catholic deacon, in training to be a priest, a character eaten up by fear. Siegfried, son of the Oberbürgermeister, is an up-and-coming composer with a bright future, but he has yet to come to terms with his homosexuality, which he seems to blame on the Hitler Youth. He swings between the poles of celebration and self-loathing.
Death in Rome is in many ways the harshest of the books, or as Hofmann writes, it "is the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read..." (Keep in mind that Hofmann is the son of German novelist Gert Hofmann.) The family is "a prototypical German family that George Grosz would have had the bile but not the wit to invent, and Musil or Mann the wit but not the bile..." (Death, viii) In terms of breadth of focus, Death occupies a middle ground between Pigeons on the Grass and The Hothouse as it follows the four main characters through about 48 hours as they interact (or refuse to) in their accidental or planned meetings in Rome. Pigeons, the first in the series, has a cast of at least two dozen characters, including both children and adults and, prominently, two black American soldiers stationed in Germany with the Allied occupation forces. The presence of the black soldiers allows Koeppen not only to reflect the more "progressive" nature of American race relations but also to expose ugly prejudices not at all expunged by the defeat of the Third Reich. The characters' lives intertwine in the course of the book's condensed time-span, but in such a way as to reveal the ongoing conflicts and misunderstandings between parents and children as well as the predatory nature of so many human contacts, even on the smallest scale. Yet the relationships are not entirely negative. Koeppen's pessimism does not become an excuse for dishonesty. One of the black soldiers, for example, is energized by learning that his German girlfriend is pregnant, and the old man working as day-porter for the other soldier shows a heart-warming concern for his temporary employer when he fears the soldier is being hustled by some gamblers he has fallen in with.
The Hothouse keeps its sights almost completely on Keetenheuve, a member of the "western" parliament meeting in the new capital at Bonn, and provides the series with its most nearly heroic character. Keetenheuve genuinely wants to serve the German people, even as he acknowledges that he is unlikely to be able to effect anything meaningful. But he too has his flaws, particularly his eye for teenage girls, one of whom had earlier become his now deceased wife.
Koeppen's subject matter is not, of course, unique, though German writers in the early 1950s were not ready to tackle it as Koeppen was. Now, almost 60 years later, the books are still striking and powerful not because they present us with something we cannot otherwise know, but because Koeppen's honesty is so uncommon, and because his narrative style is so remarkable. He writes, in all three of these books, in a modified stream of consciousness which moves in and out of the characters' minds and a more straightforward narration. In the internal passages particularly, the sentences are long, loping run-ons, accurate approximations of the chaos of thought reined in and made intelligible to the eavesdropping reader.
I close by urging you to track these books down and read them. Despite their pessimism, they are invigorating and energizing because they bring us face to face with a twentieth-century master and awake in us again the certainty that art has a voice and a place, even when ignorance and disdain would rather silence it. I would also like to give a big tip of the hat to Tsipi Keller for recommending Koeppen, whom I don't believe I had ever heard of.