Bernhard Schlink, The Weekend, translated by Shaun Whiteside (2008, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2010)
A group of friends in their 50s meet for a weekend in a grand, but dilapidated house in the German countryside, the first time they’ve all been together in decades. The occasion for their reunion is Jörg’s release from gaol where he has been serving a sentence for acts of terrorism – including four murders – back in the 1970s. The others had been members or sympathisers of the leftist group he had belonged to, but hadn’t been part of the violence.
As well as Jörg, there are Henner, now a journalist, Ilse, a school teacher, Ulrich who owns a string of dental laboratories, and Karin, a bishop, plus Jörg’s protective older Christiane. Ulrich and Karin’s spouses are also there, as well as Ulrich’s young-adult daughter. Margareta, Christiane’s friend who part-owns and lives in the house where they meet, Andreas, Jörg’s long-time lawyer, and Marko, a younger man Jörg has invited at the last minute complete the cast – until a surprise extra guest turns up on Saturday evening (about whom I won’t say anything).
This is a novel by Bernhard Schlink, who writes fine, complex essays on political-cultural issues (my blog post about his Guilt about the Past here), and as you’d expect these eleven, and then twelve, characters aren’t left to talk about the weather. Christiane has organised the weekend to help Jörg make the transition to civilian life. Marko, to the disapproval of everyone else, especially Andreas the lawyer, urgently wants Jörg to become a leader of the revived leftist group. Others, particularly Ulrich, want him to face the reality of his crimes. The conversation ranges – what happens to the dreams of youth, its ideals, loves and resentments? what has become of the leftist, political terrorism of the 70s, and how is it different from the terrorism of al-Qaeda? if you murdered bystanders ‘for the cause’, how do you see that thirty years later, especially if the cause has failed? (Since finishing the book I met the concept of moral injury, which is what happens when someone, usually a soldier, realises they have done terrible things towards what they thought were good ends, but the ends have been revealed as immoral: that concept looms large here, without the term.)
But the debating is rooted in the context of these real lives. There’s some tears, some sex, some humiliation, some wonderful intergenerational conflict, some sweet tenderness, and two surprises that I should have seen coming but didn’t. Ilse, the quiet one, has started writing a story that plays as a kind of counterpoint to the main narrative. In it, another member of their group, Jan, lives on after faking his own suicide to commit more terrorist acts; she has to imagine how to show the mental life of a man who – like Jörg – lives for decades in prison. In the end she decides to have him die, and does it in a way that I read as symbolising how that brand of leftist terrorism came to an end.
It’s a short book. I enjoyed it. It made me think.