Tauben im Gras; Pigeons on the Grass

Tauben im Gras; Pigeons on the Grass (1951)

This novel is an astonishing achievement: it successfully combines the stream of consciousness of a large number of different characters. It tells the story of a single day in Munich in 1949. It begins with morning newspaper headlines about a ‘war for oil’; there are American aircraft carriers in the Persian gulf; Russian intrigue is suspected (this is very much like the 21st-century world of today). The novel ends at midnight with a stoning by a racist mob, and with the newspapers going to press. The stream of consciousness narrative switches continually between a number of different protagonists:

Odysseus Cotton, a black American soldier; Josef, an aged porter; Philipp, a novelist with writer’s block; his wife Emilia, the impoverished descendant of a commercial family who is forced to sell her family heirlooms in order to pay for her alcohol consumption; Philipp’s psychotherapist, Dr Behude; Washington Price; a black American sergeant; his German lover Carla; her son Heinz; her mother Frau Behrend; Mr Edwin, a famous American writer, in Munich to give a lecture; a party of American women schoolteachers; Alexander, a tired film star; Messalina, his predatory wife: Hillegonda, their daughter; Richard Kirsch, a lieutenant in the US air force of German descent; Susanne, a prostitute; Schorschi, Bene, Kare and Sepp, a group of former Hitler youths; Christopher Gallagher, an American tax lawyer, his German-Jewish wife Henriette, their Catholic son Ezra, and many more.

The title of the novel is taken from a Gertrude Stein quotation, ‘Pigeons on the grass alas’; it alludes to the random and senseless quality of human life. The novel says much about the attitude of Germans to their occupiers. Koeppen shows the beginning of the West German economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) in the aftermath of World War Two and in the midst of the Cold War. War and violence are ever-present threats: ‘the world is full of violence, why? because everyone is afraid’. The novel ends in a race riot. The narrative demeanour is disenchanted, and yet readers will be astonished by the beauty of the writing and by the profound insights into the many different characters.

English Translation

Wolfgang Koeppen, Pigeons on the Grass, trans. by David Ward (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1991)