#GermanLitMonth: Pigeons on the Grass by Wolfgang Koeppen (1951)

Pigeons on the grass, that is how certain modern minds regarded people, while they strove to expose that which was senseless and apparently coincidental in human existence, to portray man as free of God, then to leave him fluttering about free in the void, senseless, valueless, free, and menaced by snares, prey to the butcher, but proud of this imagined freedom that leads to nothing but misery…

I love novels with a compressed time-span and when I came to know of a German novel that described a day in post-war Germany, I had to read it. Thankfully Open Library had a copy of it.

Wolfgang Koeppen’s novel opens in a town in Germany (reviewers have identified it with Munich) where amidst the ruins of war and Nazism and Allied occupation, life goes on. The new establishments – eateries and cinema houses and banks are slowly being constructed over the ruins. The people too are trying to reconstruct their lives, trying to learn a new language: speck is called bacon, ham is the same thing as Schinken; the former soldiers have turned pimps trying to extract money from those they had fought against; their officers are now sales man tugging goods that nobody really has the money to buy and offended by the sight of American soldiers moving around in the comfort of cars rather than on horse-backs or on foot and not saluting their senior American officers. The American presence is everywhere, in the form of soldiers and cars and magazines and commercial goods. The German women who have taken up with the Black soldiers are looked down upon yet the same people have no qualms asking for the coffee and cigarettes and dollars that the women get from the Black soldiers. Doctors have been reduced to selling their own blood or conducting abortions because who wants a mixed-race baby in the world?

Through a host of characters – the actor Alexander, his grotesque wife, his neglected child, the poet-dreamer Phillip, his wife Ellana, the American soldier Washington, his mistress Carla, Carla’s son Heinz, Kay and the other American teachers on an academic tour, the American poet Edwin, the two doctors, the porter Josef….. we enter a world of kaleidoscopic impressions and thoughts.

There is Alexander, the aging actor playing the role of an arch-duke who knows that his life is a sham. Exempted from drafting and well-hidden during a bomb-attack, he comes out to find young boys belonging to Hitler Youth clearing the streets after the all-clear and who come scrambling to him for his autograph in awe of his heroic-persona…

There is Washington, the Black American soldier who has been awarded for his fight against the Nazis and their discriminatory world-view and yet he knows that in his own country, the discrimination continues unabated…

There is Ellena, the little princess whose fortune now means nothing. With the monetary changes, the old currency has become valueless and so threadbare, she comes out selling her things to reptilian pawn-shop owners who paw her too…

There is Phillip her husbabnd, who fill not cheapen his art by writing a film-script but then is unable to earn anything and watches as his wife slowly strips the house clean…

There is Henriette whose father was a proper Prussian but who had been taken away one day because he was a Jew.

We enter the minds of all these people and thus emerges the story of a city…the endless restrictions, the endless struggle to make ends meet, the cramped quarters, the racist restfulness, the moral discomfort… burdened with fate, fear, doubts, past, and hopelessness…

I was reading a book with a stream of consciousness technique after a very long time. It is a difficult narration to follow and with the plethora of characters, at times, it did make for some tough reading. However, over all I enjoyed this book (and the translator David Ward provided a very good introduction) and am looking forward to reading Koepenn’s next novel: The Hothouse.

There was a lot of music being played in the novel. Here is some of it for your listening pleasure:

Heaven by Duke Ellington
emile waldteufel españa waltz
A later version of Lincke’s Glow-Worm

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All in all this was a satisfying end to the German Literature Month 2021 and many thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for hosting it. Do share your views about the book and the music.

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First Line: Fliers were over the city, ominous birds.

Publication Details: London & NY: Holmes and Meier, 1988

First Published: 1951

Original Title: Tauben im Gras

Translator: David Ward

Pages: 202

12 thoughts on “#GermanLitMonth: Pigeons on the Grass by Wolfgang Koeppen (1951)

  1. This sounds like a really interesting look at post-war Germany, Neeru. I know what you mean about compressed timelines, too. They can tell stories really powerfully when they’re done well. I like looking at history through individual characters’ eyes, too. As you say, stream of consciousness can be a challenge to read, but it sounds as though it was done pretty well here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are certain stream-of-consciousness novels that I have really enjoyed like Mrs. Dalloway but there are certain others which left me floundering. I could follow the thoughts here, thankfully but perhaps fewer characters would have been better. As for compressed time-lines, I remember you had written a wonderful post on it @ your earlier blog. Wish I could read it again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the kind words, Neeru! I still have that post and would be happy to send it too you if you’d like. If you wish, you can email me at mmkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com, and I’ll be glad to send it along.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. Sounds a very interesting read, all the more so since it unfolds in the course of a day. I had read Frances Faviell’s The Dancing Bear which gave one a look into post war Berlin and people’s plight. The victors sadly were in many ways as bad as those they ‘defeated’, once again a sad truth of war. Must check this one out at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the idea of all the action taking place in one day, and the setting. Not so sure about the stream of consciousness writing. It is not very long, though. I should try it.

    Liked by 1 person

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