Winner 1993 Schlegel-Tieck prize for German translation. 

There’s nothing like a cozy family reunion and,  believe me, this is nothing like a cozy family reunion!

The composer Siegfried Pfaffrath is about to launch his first symphony into the world; Siegfried has disowned his German family as he is unable to come to terms with the crimes of the previous decade.  His symphony, full of discord, reflects his attitude to the German past and his ambivalence towards the future.

At times the music attempted a joy and sweetness like those of the old tombs, but then it seemed that Siegfried had blundered, written down wrong notes, chosen the wrong tone; …. it became harsh and excessive, the music was cramped for space, it screamed, it was fear of death, a Northern dance of earth, a plague procession, and finally the passages dissolved into one wall of fog.

His family is in town.  In Siegfried’s eyes they are sullied, tarnished with the Nazi past, although his father is now an elected mayor and, therefore, respectable.  His cousin, Adolf (!) Judejahn, a fellow rebel, albeit of a different kind.  Well on the way to becoming a catholic priest, the significance of his rebellion becoming obvious as his father, Gottlieb Judejahn, comes into focus.  For Judejahn is the hateful, unrepentant SS officer, living in exile in Rome, biding his time to return in triumph and reclaim power in Germany.

The four main male characters dance around each other, meeting fleetingly and uncomfortably in a 1950’s post-war Rome, a city imbued with its own sense of lost empire, a city with historical connections of German longing.  It soon becomes clear that each of the four characters  represents part of the devastated German soul.  Music, religion, democracy, dictatorship.  The prose is dense, intense, highly charged with the varying viewpoints.  There are few, if any,  areas of connection and reconciliation between the four; a point well-emphasised by the relative lack of dialogue.  How will the German nation ever heal when everyone is out of kilter, not only with others, but also with themselves?  Another point cleverly made by Koeppen in his choice of (mis)names:  Gottlieb (God-love) is the first name (and given the voice he has, the conscience) of the unrepentant Nazi.  Friedrich Wilhelm, the democratically elected mayor, echoes the kaisers from the German Holy Roman Empire.  Adolf (no explanation necessary!) is the priest.  And Siegfried (Peace is victorious) is perchance the most tortured of all.  The surnames are more harmonious with the truth:  Judejahn  – not a real word but an amalgamation of Jude (jew), jaeten (to weed out) and Wahn (madness); Pfaffrath – an amalgamation of Pfaffe  (a disrespectful term for a priest) and Rath (council). Clever stuff, indeed and I’ve yet to mention Dietrich, Siegfried’s brother, an amalgam of all, the background figure, the one to whom no mud sticks and whose name means first of the people, king of nations.

A subsidiary cast of female characters enhance the analogy. Ilse Kuerenberg, the wife of the conductor  performing Siegfried’s symphony , is also the daughter of a Jew, persecuted to death by Judejahn.  Laura, a barmaid and Italian Catholic is mistaken for a Jewess by Judejahn.  Judejahn’s wife, Eva, clinging still to her Nazi ideology, believes that the time is ripe for the past to reclaim the present.  Yet her trip to Rome disavows her of her hopes.

A contradiction in terms maybe, the subtext of Koeppen’s novel is overtly political and, given its cool reception in the Germany of the 1950’s,  an entirely honest appraisal of the contemporaneous German psyche.  Not an easy read though certainly not a dry one.  Full of tortured souls; racial, political and sexual hatred aplenty and let’s not forget the death.  Who and how to remain a mystery in this review at least.  The context of the analogy is all you need to know.

 Thanks to John Self at The Asylum for bringing this complex but completely absorbing German novel to my attention.