Death in Rome is a small, challenging, and disturbing novel by German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen published in 1954.

Death in romeThe action of the book takes place over two days in 1954 as two German families attempt a reunion in Rome in the ashes  post-war Eurpoe.

Siegfried Pfaffrath is an avant garde atonal composer. His uncle Gottlieb Judejahn is a former SS General who has escaped execution as a war criminal by fleeing Germany. He is now seeking to create a new identity for himself and rebuild his fortunes as an international arms trader.

Through these two men and other members of their families, Wolgang Koeppen struggles to come to grips with the horror of his country’s recent past and to imagine a way for survivors to live in the future.

Gottlieb feels no remorse for his Nazi past. He longs for the return of the great and glorious days of National Socialism. He longs for the restoration of proper order where men give commands and are obeyed without question because they are acting on the orders of those above them. Gottlieb places his hope for a return to the glory of the fatherland  in violence and power.

To Gottlieb’s horror, in Rome he finds his son Adolf who is deacon, training to enter the priesthood. Adolf seeks in the church a way to escape the violent legacy of his family. But he is not convinced that escape into religion has the power to render him truly free. Adolf wonders with some skepticism,

Did salvation lie in renunciation, in flight, in solitude, was the hermit the only prototype of survival?

The main protagonist in Death in Rome is the composer Siegfried. His father who was a Nazi bureaucrat during the war years has been denazified and returned as a respectable politician,

once again top dog, the old mayor re-elected by the people, by strictly democratic procedures.

Siegfried despises Germany’s past and has little hope for the world’s future. He only wants to retreat into a lonely isolated world in which his own life is his only concern. Siegfried says,

I wanted my life, just my own little life, no life everlasting. I wasn’t greedy, no life of sin. What was sin, anyway? I just wanted my life, just my own little life, I wanted to be there just for myself alone and to get on with my own life.

What Siegfried believes in is

the futility of everything. Or maybe not everything, but that my being here is futile, my speaking to these people is futile, our picture being taken is futile, the flashlight is futile, my music is futile, but it wouldn’t have to be, if I only had a little faith. But what am I to believe in? In myself? It would probably be sensible to believe in myself, but I can’t believe in myself even if I try to sometimes.

******(spoiler alert)*****

There is little light in Koeppen’s novel and not a lot of room for hope, until perhaps the final scene when Gottlieb lies dying in the streets of Rome and his son deacon son Adolf runs to find a priest.  When he arrives,

The priest knelt down. He went on to perform the extreme unction, and grand conditional absolution as was right for one who had lost consciousness. With the oil hat a bishop had blessed, the priest anointed Judejahn’s eyes, his ears, his mouth and the plams of his hands. The priest prayed. He prayed: ‘Through this Holy anointing and its most tender mercy, may the Lord forgive you whatever sins you have committed through your sense of sight, through your sense of hearing, of smell, of taste and touch.’ Judejahn did not move. Was he not moved by the words of the priest? Judejahn never moved again. He lay there motionless, and the Roman priest commended him to God’s mercy, and his son in the cassock of a Roman priest prayed for his father.

Koeppen’s novel ends on an ambiguous note. But, perhaps in a world where a tiny act of faith, even at the very end of life is still possible, there remains room for hope despite the horror and violence to which history bears such eloquent testimony.

Koeppen offers a glimpse into the possibility that perhaps a priest might serve to point towards a deeper more enduring reality in the midst of all the violence and horror that characterize so much of life. Not a bad job if you can get it.