Thursday, February 24, 2011


Bernhard Schlink's compelling novel works on many levels.

It is a love story, where the narrator, Peter Debauer, and his love, Barbara, look for happiness in the routine of cohabitation and find it hard to maintain.

It is a philosophical novel, exploring ideas on governance in society and debating concepts like "the Odyssey of law" and deconstructionist theory.

Above all, it is a novel, like Schlink's The Reader (which I haven't read but know only from the movie that won Kate Winslet her Oscar), that delves into the long-lasting impact of the war on German society. The catastrophic disruption of World War II has an aftermath of displacement and deception that lasts till today.

This is what has the most appeal to me because, I confess, I do get homesick for Germany from time to time. Tell-tale details about daily life in Germany are sweetly nostalgic for me. And there is Schlink's decidedly German point of view, so that even reading this in English I can almost hear the narrator speaking in German.

There is deception at every level and in every character. The main action of the novel -- Peter's search for his elusive father, long thought (by him) to be dead -- describes the series of deceptions practiced by this man. Peter's mother deceived her son into thinking she was married to his father and he was dead, neither of which was true. His grandparents, we realize in retrospect, played along with this charade. But Peter himself engages in a series of deceptions as he tells himself he is looking for the truth.

Much of this deception has its roots in war crimes, as with the Kate Winslet character in The Reader. Peter's father, it emerges, was at least closely associated with a bona fide war criminal, even if there was no evidence of his own crimes. The crimes of war led to the criminal division of Germany, which created its own set of deceptions. The story is set during the time that the Berlin Wall collapses and Peter inserts himself into the parallel universe that is East Germany, posing as a legal scholar to teach classes in Berlin.

Eventually, Peter's search for his father takes him to New York, where his father has reinvented himself as a professor at Columbia (Schlink coyly does not mention the name of the university, but it is clearly Columbia, right down to meeting in front of the International Affairs building, my home for two years). Peter pretends to be a visiting scholar so he can audit his father's seminar. While America does not share the wartime roots of deception that Germany has, it proves to be a place where deception is not only tolerated, but welcomed.

The novel proceeds in a succession of almost novella-like segments, each one with its own setting and mood that often have little to do with each other. There is the idyllic opening segment of Peter's childhood visits to his grandparents in Switzerland and their mysterious book editing project. It is Peter's fascination with the anonymous author of one of these books that sets him unwittingly on what will be the search for his father. Long excerpts from this book form almost a novella within a novella.

Then there is a segment of his long courtship of Barbara, who he meets while in search of this anonymous author. The charming story of how they fall in love and move in together proceeds along with Peter's increasingly obsessive need to track down this author. It emerges that Barbara, too, has been deceptive, hiding the existence of an absent husband, whose return puts a (temporary) end to their relationship.

The scene shifts to East Berlin after the fall of the Wall and Peter's stint as a teacher (he never completed his dissertation to actually get a degree but no one asked for his academic credentials). Fate played its hand again and Peter is reunited with Barbara, only to leave again to pursue the trail of his father in New York.

John De Baur, as the father is known in New York, is a paragon of intelligence and versatility, brilliantly adept at reinventing himself and invariably successful. His distressed, unacknowledged son is something of a slug by comparison. In New York, the father has a new life, complete with a new family -- a wife younger than Peter and two small children.

Peter stalks his father, attends his seminar, befriends the new family and finally takes part in an exclusive January seminar in the Adirondacks. He tantalizes his father with clues but never reveals his identity. The final novella is the slightly surrealistic story of this seminar in the snowy wilderness of upstate New York.

Homecoming is of course a theme throughout the book. Schlink plays with the metaphor of Odysseus -- his long journey home, his bloody homecoming when he slays Penelope's suitors, and his subsequent departure for new adventures with the uncertain prospect that he will return.

There is the homecoming of Karl, the hero in the pulp fiction novel by the anonymous author that launches Peter's search. Peter comes to see it as paralleling the real homecoming of the author, who he determines is Volker Vonlanden, one of his father's aliases.

But the real coming home is Peter's own, and that is the central narrative of the novel. It is a long journey, replete with adventures like that of Odysseus -- siren calls, Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops. Peter lacks the self assurance of either Odysseus or his father and his final homecoming is at least as tentative as theirs.

All in all, an engaging, stimulating read. It makes me think I'd like to back and read The Reader, too, maybe even in German.

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