Wolfgang Koeppen: Das Treibhaus (The Hothouse)
The hothouse of the title is Bonn in the 1950s and the main inhabitant is a German social democrat member of parliament, called Keetenheuve. At the beginning of the book he has just buried his wife, Elke. He found Elke at the end of the war, an orphan girl of sixteen. Her father had been a senior Nazi official and he and his wife killed themselves to avoid punishment. Keetenheuve had left Germany in the 1930s, disgusted with the rise of the Nazis, and ended up in England via Canada. He returned to Germany as a major in the British army. This fact and his father-in-law have been two of the impediments to his career. However, the major impediment at the start of this book is that Germany wants to re-arm, while Keetenheuve is a committed pacifist. In short, he does not play the game. In the Bonn hothouse, it is business as usual, with the politicians – including former Nazis – making deals, playing games. Much of the action takes place in smoke-filled chambers where deals are cut and discussions take place. The one discussion that has Keetenheuve realise that neither he nor his ideals have any future is when he is offered the ambassadorship to Guatemala. He is smart enough to realise that this is a way of getting rid of him and bitter enough to not even seriously consider the offer.
While this is a brief outline of the plot, what makes this book is that much of the action takes place over a few days and is all filtered through Keetenheuve’s depressed and embittered viewpoint. He is depressed at his wife’s death but also depressed because he is not depressed enough. His bitterness at what he sees, as Germany returns to its old ways, colours everything. Koeppen’s way of showing us this is through Keetenheuve’s increasingly bitter detachment but also through an impressionistic series of images, some real, some imagined, ranging from Hitler appearing before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee to two lesbian Salvation Army members. Anything can trigger these images – the noise of a train or seeing army officers. He remembers first meeting his wife and has images – generally unpleasant – of what Guatemala might be like. In short, Keetenheuve’s world and Keetenheuve’s Germany are not pretty. Nevertheless, this is a fine book and clearly prophetic both as regards the direction of Germany and German literature and well worth reading.
Translated by Michael Hofmann
First published 1953 by Scherz & Goverts Verlag
First English translation 2001 by W W Norton