BOOK REVIEW / Four characters in search of an awful past: Death in Rome - Wolfgang Koeppen: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99

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GERMANY in the Nineties has a surfeit of rampant ghosts from the past to deal with, and its people might well feel nostalgic for the Fifties. Those were the years not only of the Economic Miracle in the fledgling Federal Republic but also - according to Michael Hofmann, the translator of this remarkable Fifties novel - a time when the war-haunted Germans adopted an attitude of 'severance and disavowal' towards the past.

Koeppen (still alive at 86), a non-Nazi who spent the Second World War silently in his home country, broke his silence between 1951-54 with three novels - the last of them Death in Rome - that challenged the collective forgetfulness, being what Hofmann calls 'works of memory and continuance and criticism'. They were all the more provocative for appearing at a point when life was particularly difficult for any German writer aspiring to independence. One forthright young poet, Rainer Gerhardt, complained that radical writers risked total obscurity unless aligned to one clique or another. 'We have nothing,' he went on, 'that unites the spirit of a nation or gives it nourishment.'

Such were the bleak literary circumstances in which Koeppen launched his trio of outspoken novels. After Death in Rome appeared, its author lapsed back into virtual silence, possibly concluding from its stormy reception that his attempt to point up the 'bonds of steel and blood' that joined Adenauer's republic to the dark past stood no chance of acceptance. For his part Gerhardt, a pioneer promoter of Anglo-American modernism in a country starved of foreign literatures, killed himself in 1954, forlorn in the isolation that was the price of literary individuality in the Germany of those days.

In Koeppen's case, the price included critical savagings of Death in Rome for its disturbing speculations. One of the few to welcome it was Alfred Andersch, author of The Cherries of Freedom, which had also confronted the nation's daunting history and thereby caused a similar uproar. Andersch singled out the skill with which Koeppen's plot had been choreographed like a macabre ballet.

The novel recounts a bizarre family reunion in post-war Rome. This brings together, among others, an avant-garde composer; his father, once a Nazi bureaucrat, now a respectable mayor; his uncle, a mercenary as virulently Nazi as he was in his SS heyday; and the uncle's son, a trainee Catholic priest. Through his portrayals of this symbolic foursome, Koeppen reflects on the 20th-century metamorphosis of the German nation. But the book never becomes merely didactic, and the main protagonists have a mercurial life of their own. The uncle, Gottlieb Judejahn, is the most memorable - a symptomatic monster who plays out his Hitler-inspired dynamic to the point of madly inflicting the death which, along with his own, ends off the book.

The whole array of familial permutations takes shape against a hedonistic backdrop of Fifties Rome that anticipates Fellini as well as recalling - perhaps too patly - Thomas Mann's use of Venice in the famous allegory of cultural collapse from which Koeppen takes his cue. He brings even his most repugnant characters into vivid close-up. Judejahn's wife, Eva, still a raving Hitlerite, seems to her priestly son to be consumed by truly devilish ideas that work like an inferno inside her, reducing her to perpetual self-torment. The youthful composer, Siegfried, condemns his parents' generation as murderers, or at least condoners who 'stayed cosily at home knowing full well that people were being murdered'. But he sees no role for composers in preventing a Nazi resurgence.

We are left to conclude that it was this kind of aesthetic quietism, together with Brown Shirt barbarism, bureaucratic crassness and the religious chill of the churches that made for the German Catastrophe. Siegfried exclaims: 'In my daydreams and nightmares I see the Browns and the nationalist idiocy on the march again.' No wonder the Fifties critics, eager to forget, took umbrage.

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