DEATH IN ROME by Wolfgang Koeppen


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This Mann-esque German import, previously unpublished in English, takes readers on a lonely midnight walk without a map through crumbling foreign alleyways. Koeppen (Pigeons on the Grass, not reviewed) gives his post--WW II narrative, a cross between domestic drama and fairy tale, four leading characters: Siegfried Pfaffrath, a composer; his father, Friedrich, the corrupt OberbÃœrgermeister of their hometown; Friedrich's brother-in-law Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS soldier; and Gottlieb's son Adolf, a priest. Estranged during the war, the four become reacquainted in Rome. Hofmann, who won a Times Literary Supplement prize in England for this translation, explains in his introduction that the characters are allegories as well as people (they represent music, bureaucracy, murder, and religion -- four areas in which Germans have excelled), and that the text is a symbol as well as a story. Woe, then, to the lay reader without a background in German culture. A sense of alienation hangs over the text: The characters never seem able to penetrate one another's lives, and the prose is equally detached. The big family reunion is a case in point. Koeppen's staccato narrative brings the four protagonists together at Siegfried's concert, where they engage in about as much intimate contact as would pieces on a chessboard. The action occurs primarily in the characters' minds and memories. There are some vivid and disturbing depictions, especially that of Gottlieb, whose relationship to his family, women, and the heinous Third Reich is closely examined. Still obsessed with Jews, he forms a twisted attraction to a local barmaid who he suspects is Jewish. His plans to bed and destroy her are temporarily interrupted by Adolf's appearance and the discovery that she is Catholic, but his anger is rerouted to another outlet. Desolate, cold, cryptic.

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 1994
ISBN: 0393321940
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Penguin