Siegfried is an avant-garde atonal composer, rebelling against his family and tradition. He is in Rome for a performance of his work by the conductor who befriended and supported him, and who has a Jewish wife. (The fragments from Siegfried's perspective are in the first person, the others' in the third person.)
Siegfried's uncle Judejahn is a former SS general, sentenced to death in absentia, who has found refuge in the army of a Middle Eastern state and is travelling under a false identity. Shorn of his uniform and his hierarchy of command he is lost in Rome's bustle, preferring low-life eateries and lusting after barmaids. Still running away from his boyhood weakness, he respects only violence.
And Judejahn's son Adolf is a deacon, in training to become a priest but suffering a crisis of faith. He ends up competing with his father for the same woman.
These three have the largest roles in Death in Rome, but other members of the family are also present. Having found his feet after the war, Siegfried's father Friedrich is now a mayor and is doing quite nicely for himself, while Siegfried's brother Dietrich grasps after his own power. And Judejahn's wife Eva is an even more hard-line Nazi than he is, driven by an almost religious commitment.
Much of Death in Rome involves the past: most obviously the war, but also earlier events in Nazi history (for all of which Judejahn seems to have been present), in deeper German history, and at the end of the war, which saw Judejahn's escape and Adolf's conversion. There's symbolism in all of this — the names of the characters are hardly random, to start with — but this is just a small part of the torrent of ideas and images and events.
In the present, the novel is set over two days, much of it taking place at night. It is dominated by Rome, brought to life in its bustle and its history, densely referenced.
"Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there's only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo's, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?"
As this opening suggests, Koeppen's style is a little breathless, with long paragraphs, some long sentences, and rapid switches of perspective. The language probes relentlessly, a psychological scalpel, and also provides part of the propulsive force driving the story as it spirals to its terrible conclusion.
Confronting when first published in 1954, Death in Rome (Der Tod in Rom) still packs a punch. It is probably the best starting point for newcomers to Koeppen.