HOTHOUSE is in many ways an unusual book. It is born out of and deeply anchored in the tumultuous days of the young German republic emerging from the devastation of WWII. In that framework, it is both brilliant fiction and a devastating political critique. The novel captures the intense and oppressive atmosphere in the temporary capital, Bonn. The "hothouse" image is aptly applied to the physical environment of this city in the Rhine valley, prone to a hot, muggy and stifling climate. It also pertains to the overwrought political atmosphere, characterized by the ambiguous and contradictory political interests of the key players of the day.
Koeppen's hero, Keetenheuve, having returned from voluntary exile in 1945, was elected to the new Parliament four years later. Due to his behaviour and his political views, however, he has remained an outsider: a sensitive intellectual with strong moral and pacifist beliefs. Viewed with suspicion by his opposition party colleagues, monitored by the other side, he is ready for a major political fight. The novel's plot unfolds over a period of two days, starting with Keetenheuve's train ride to Bonn for an important parliamentary debate and ending with his wandering off into oblivion. The issue concerns the planned rearmament of Germany's western part under the control of the Allied Forces. Despite his definite views on the matter that contrast sharply with the spineless compromise attitude of the party, Keetenheuve has been chosen to present its policy in the debate.
While the story is related almost exclusively in the third person, the perspective is primarily that of Keetenheuve. The narrative flows and ebbs between assessment of friends and foes or descriptions of events and his inner musings on the past, present and future. Memory and loss of his young wife, a victim of circumstance and recent history, permeate Keetenheuve's consciousness. His feelings of personal guilt fuse with his anger and frustration with the new society that has emerged from the ruins of the war. The chances for learning from the recent past seem to evaporate in political wrangling as the old powers reaffirm themselves. His attempts to escape into the poetry are constantly undermined by the preoccupations of the day. For Keetenheuve his upcoming speech will also be a battle cry. Is he truly fit to win?
While HOTHOUSE is without doubt a work of fiction, the context that Koeppen established was real and present at the time. However, he mixed and overlapped realities with the interpretations and compulsive dreams of his hero, interspersing additional identifiable inner monologue sections into the narrative. Furthermore, the novel is rich with literary, historical and cultural allusions, connotations and metaphors. The result is a literary work of emotional intensity and descriptive power, unique for its time and place.
Reading HOTHOUSE more than 50 years after its original publication in 1953 does not necessarily do justice to what the novel represented to his contemporaries. At a literary level, it has been called "avant-garde", influenced by English-language authors such as James Joyce, rather than building on the pre-war German literary traditions. For its time it was not only innovative but also provocative in form and content and attracted more resentment and rejection than praise. It is one of three novels by Koeppen, referred to since as the "Trilogy of Failure", written within the brief period of 1952 to 1954. They stand as a rare example of literary critical examination of the Germany shortly after World War II. For the general reader HOTHOUSE will not be an easily accessible book, for anybody interested in recent German and European history it is a must read. [Friederike Knabe]