The Weekend, by Bernhard Schlink
The book reminds of one of my favorite moves: The Big Chill. Here, too, some old college chums – male and female – gather again after so many years, each in middle age and still a bit confused about what their radical, revolutionary lives back then were really all about.
In the movie, one of their friends, a gifted physics student, had drifted through a series of seemingly meaningless jobs before committing suicide. Here, the center of attention is a convicted murderer and terrorist named Jörg, who has just been released after two decades in jail. In both movie and book, there is little in the way of plotting; instead, there’s a tectonic shift of personalities as each finds ways to reconcile both the past and the present.
This book seems to mark a similar shift in Schlink and, one would imagine, in the lives of his readership. Schlink has made his fiction largely about reconciling Germany’s wicked role under the Hitler regime – about how difficult it is to face such horrid facts, and how a people and a nation pick up the emotional pieces, forgive themselves, and move on.
In The Weekend one senses that Schlink, at least, has moved on. But there’s more to his writing – and this story – than rationalizing away evil. Schlink’s project here, bears on that, of course. The sort of horrors Nazi Germany perpetrated aren’t done singularly. But he would be very ham-handed as a novelist were he to simply sit a group of characters in front of so many pitchers of beer and have at the rationalizations. How he handles this book’s intended impact can perhaps best be shown by examples from the text, these examples of two types:
One of the old group remembers hearing a gathering of ex-SS men talking as they drank beer:
“Don’t you remember the time we beat up the Jews in Wilna and Shot the Poles in Warsaw?...” when the way things really happened was “Remember the time we drank champagne in Warsaw and fucked the girls in Wilna…?”
The import of this passage is that memory plays tricks; one who commits atrocities may choose to elide over such things, maybe even remember them in error.
At book’s end, the old friends, having occasionally feuded through the weekend, some making love, some seeking simply to understand, help one of their group bail out her basement:
“Marko filled the first bucket and passed it to Andreas at the bottom of the steps. Via Ilse, Jörg, and Ingeborg, the bucket wandered up the steps, and was passed…”
Just as it took many colluding with others to create Nazi Germany, Auschwitz, and all the rest, so a single focus by many can also create good and overcome pettiness.
It’s these old friends’ blending of warped memory and a common effort that brought them to the beginning of redemption as they realized their terrorism and murders were not unlike that of the Nazis.
My rating 5 of 5 stars.
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