Potent issues

2011-03-02 00:00

BERNHARD Schlink’s The Reader was one of the most impressive and profound pieces of fiction to appear in the last 20 or so years. He has followed it with a volume of short stories and two novels, the disappointingly turgid The Homecoming and now, The Weekend. Once again, Schlink tackles his favourite topics of guilt, forgiveness and redemption, but while The Weekend is not a bad novel, it never comes close to the heights of The Reader.

The pivot of the story is Jörg, a Red Army Faction terrorist who has been released from prison after serving 24 years for murder. His sister Christiane has arranged a “welcome to freedom” weekend for various of his old friends at her ramshackle house in the country. They include a female bishop; a businessman who owns dental laboratories, along with his wife and promiscuous daughter; and a journalist. Their memories of Jörg, their motives for being there and their views of their mutual past, are varied and not always compatible.

Jörg was released because he asked for a pardon, but there are people on the outside who are keen to use him for their own ends, and none too scrupulous in their methods. It makes for a volatile mix, one which will make the weekend uncomfortable at the very least.

Schlink raises potent issues: is the reminiscing of old Seventies terrorists and fellow-travellers any different from the reminiscing of old SS comrades as they sit in a Munich beer hall? For how long will guilt for the past continue to create new tragedy: as Henner, the journalist, says: “Misery passes itself on and on”. Is the terror of the left any more justifiable than the evil of fascism? But the fundamental problem with The Weekend is that it is hard to care about the characters. They are, sadly, dead on the page, and if we cannot empathise with them, feel their concerns or, sometimes, tell which is which, it is hard to get to grips with the issues Schlink is making them raise. It is a novel to inspire respect rather than passion.

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