Story of the story of a soldier coming home after World War 2

2009-05-20 00:00



Bernhard Schlink


FOR me, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is one of the great novels of the 20th century. Accessible and gripping, it is also a profound exploration of a national psyche and the guilt that went along with it. Sadly, with Homecoming, Schlink has not succeeded in repeating his triumph.

Not that Homecoming is a bad novel. Again, it deals in important questions, and by tackling them through a personal story, makes them both real and immediate. But Schlink allows himself to become too discursive and philosophical here, at the expense of the narrative drive. And there are other problems.

The plot concerns Peter Debauer, being brought up in post-war Germany by a single mother. He is told his father disappeared in the war, and every summer he goes to visit his Swiss paternal grandparents, something the solitary child enjoys. The grandparents are publishing a series of novels, and Peter is given the old proofs as scrap paper — and told not to read the printed side of the page. Inevitably, he does, and becomes fascinated by a strange tale of a German soldier, attempting to come home after World War 2 and who, like Odysseus, finds his journey and homecoming beset by problems.

But the end of the manuscript is missing, and his search for it takes the adult Peter in strange directions, eventually leading him to New York and an encounter with a professor who may hold the key to many of the unanswered questions of Peter’s life.

The novel tackles the nature of identity — who we are and what we need to know about ourselves to establish that identity. It also considers whether good achieved through evil means can be good. But the ending is unsatisfactory, and Peter is a curiously uncompelling and passive hero. His mother, his grandfather and his girlfriend all have more clearly drawn personalities, and this makes it hard to care too much about Peter and his personal odyssey. The Reader was always going to be a hard act to follow, but this is a disappointment.

Margaret von Klemperer

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