The Hothouse

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The books in Wolfgang Koeppen’s trilogy of political and social satire stand by themselves, each with its own characters and settings. The novels are alike, however, in their satirical and disparaging approach to society and politics in Germany during the 1950’s. The first book, Tauben im Gras (1951; Pigeons on the Grass, 1988) unfolds in Munich and reveals what thirty characters undergo during a single day in the bombed-out city. The third book, Der Tod in Rom (1954; Death in Rome, 1992) recounts how various members of a traditional German family accidentally meet in Rome. This devastating representation of the German character is usually considered the trilogy’s masterpiece.

After publishing two minor novels in the 1930’s, Koeppen broke his long silence in the 1950’s when the trilogy appeared over a two-year period. Most German critics rejected the books, questioning in their reviews whether Germany at that particular time deserved such a bitter revival of its Nazi past and such a caustic picture of the struggle to rebuild its political institutions after the war. The critics also objected to the novels’ ridicule of the national temperament and the idiosyncrasies associated with stereotypical Germans. Koeppen was taken to task as well for his literary form, which had been strongly influenced by works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947). At the very time that German fiction had started to move in new directions, critics scorned Koeppen’s reliance on the modernist tradition in his writing style and narrative structure. Finally, Koeppen’s raw handling of sex, including homosexuality, came in for criticism during an era marked by its puritanical nature. In spite of the negative reception in the 1950’s and the neglect in Germany since then, Koeppen has always had a limited but powerful circle of admirers, including Germany’s leading novelist, the 1999 Nobel laureate Günter Grass. Because of the longstanding lack of translations, Koeppen has not until recently reached an international audience.

The middle novel, The Hothouse, is the most political work in the trilogy; yet it operates fully on the personal level as well. For that reason, the title suggests two metaphorical hothouses where delicate plants—that is, ideas and the actions they generate—are nurtured and are subject to blight if not handled with proper care. In the first hothouse, the postwar German government has been planted and its full growth is endangered by power-hungry politicians, ill-advised decisions, and corruption. The second hothouse lies in the mind of the central character, Keetenheuve, a member of the Bundestag (Parliament) who may be described as a man too honest and too upright for effectiveness in the political fray.

Following World War II, Germany’s capital moved from its traditional home in Berlin to Bonn, a small and insignificant university town along the Rhine River in the northern part of the country near the ancient and major city of Cologne. In the 1950’s, the Christian Democrat Party held power and most outside observers considered it to be highly corrupt. On the other hand, many regarded the opposition, the Social Democrats, as too honest to be effective in combating the maneuvering and corruption of their rivals. In any case, the politicians had been ordered to fulfill a difficult task: to create a democracy in a historically authoritarian nation that had no democratic traditions. Keetenheuve views the undertaking with skepticism, fearful that the old ways will prevail and suspicious of the Parliament’s former Nazis, whom he doubts have truly reformed.

These were the circumstances on which Koeppen based The Hothouse, even though he neither names the ruling parties and individuals involved nor provides accurate historical details. In fact, he offers a disclaimer in an “Author’s Note,” admitting that the novel draws from “recent political events,” then...

(The entire section is 1651 words.)