By Ruth Kluger
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 8:08 PM
By Bernhard Schlink
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside
Pantheon. 215 pp. $24.95
Not many American readers of this intelligent, stimulating novel will remember the German terrorist movement of the 1970s that called itself the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion or RAF). They were a small group of would-be revolutionaries who fought against what they considered capitalism gone haywire and West German connivance with U.S. imperialism. They committed violent crimes, including assassinations and bank robberies, which in turn inspired anti-terrorist legislation that infringed on civil rights, causing a good deal of controversy within German society. These days they are in the news again, because the few who survive have served their prison sentences and are about to be released or are already free.
Bernhard Schlink's new novel centers on one of these terrorists, who has been pardoned by the German president. On his release, his sister arranges a weekend in which he can become acclimatized and resocialized in idyllic surroundings and in the company of his former friends. "The Weekend" deals only indirectly with a turbulent past, and much more with how things have changed. Schlink is interested in how memories linger or don't, and how a wealthy nation can or cannot integrate its former fear, hostility and violence into today's well-being. In a sense, the book is a variation of Schlink's most famous novel, "The Reader," the story of a man's discovery that his childhood sweetheart was an illiterate guard in a concentration camp. Instead of the Nazi past, in "The Weekend" it is the turbulent postwar years that cast a shadow over the prosperous present.
A dozen people on a dilapidated old estate in former East Germany discuss their past, their convictions and their comfortable status quo. Joerg, the ex-prisoner, holds fast to his revolutionary ideals, which he didn't recant even in his application for clemency. He still opposes the democratic state in its present form, and he is egged on by Marko, a member of a new left-wing fringe movement, who tries to win him for the cause.
The others, like Ulrich, a rich owner of dental labs who embodies the industrial wealth and technical competence of his country, have made their peace with the system. The older generation is partly reflective and partly smug. There is a woman bishop, haunted by her childlessness and an early abortion. There is Henner, a successful journalist who remembers "the atmosphere on those nights when they had talked till dawn . . . to find the correct analysis, the correct action. . . . But there was nothing in his memories of what they had talked about and what they had actually been searching for."
Joerg falsely suspects Henner of having caused his initial arrest, but that was really the doing of his overly protective sister, one of many interesting plot twists. (After all, Schlink has written a number of detective stories.) They lighten the burden of the political and philosophical debates that are the backbone of the book.
Ulrich's daughter tries to seduce Joerg, not from affection but because of his fame, as a trophy conquest. She's a counterpart to the ideologue Marko, both trying to co-opt the celebrity. And to complete the round of insensitivity among the young, there is Joerg's son, who accuses his father of abandonment. Family conflict erupts where abstract conversation about good and evil was meant to prevail.
But the author's creative alter ego is Ilse, a mousy high school teacher whom the others never took seriously. She spends the weekend writing a story in longhand in a fat notebook, and she's the one who asks what is surely the author's half-ironic question: "What do we want our terrorists to be like?" She's haunted by pictures of the people who fell or jumped out of the twin towers on Sept. 11. In her tale, rendered in italics, the unsavory past comes alive, with its kidnappings and murders. In her re-creation of a comrade who committed suicide - or was abducted or just ran away - fact and fiction merge.
The integration of ideas and narrative detail may not always be fully successful in this tight little novel, but it is never trivial. At its best, Schlink, one of Germany's few internationally known authors, allows us a glimpse into the national sense of unease beneath the smooth surface of his country's culture. The weekend ends as it began: Nothing is solved; life goes on.
email@example.com Kluger is a retired professor of literature and the author of "Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered."