Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink is probably most famous for his wonderful book The Reader, which was also made into a film. Homecoming has been on my TBR shelves for some years, and which is often the case, once I have read the book, I wonder why I left it there for so long.

As with The Reader, this book takes us back to events during World War II. Peter Debauer is born at the end of the war and grows up with his mother. His father died during the war. His youth summers are spent with his grand parents in Switzerland. The mother never comes with him to be with her in-laws.

His grand parents extends their pension by editing a series of books entitled “Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment”, which Peter reads through the summers. Once the grand parents are gone he finds another book which he starts to read. The problem is that there are pages missing, and since the book somehow hits a string inside him, he searches, through the years for another copy and/or the writer, to find out how the person finally came home.  It turns out to be a life long search.


The search is framed by Homer’s Odysseus and his travels home after the Trojan War. For Peter it is also and odyssé, to find out who his father was, where he belongs and the meaning of his own life. The story follows the events of his life, from a youngster, to his youth and to his grown up life. Every road he takes leads into another one and a new direction in life.  Peter is like a spectator in his own life, and has problems engaging with other people. It is thought provoking, and shows what it is like growing up, not knowing who we are, where we come from, or maybe even, where we are going.

At one point Peter is working in Berlin, after the wall is down. He is speaking with an American journalist who asks him what he thinks about the wall going down and  the unification.

'I went on about the two halves of Germany: the Catholic, Rhinelandish, Bavarian, opulent, life-affirming, extroverted western half versus the Protestant, Prussian, frugal, hard-boiled, introverted eastern half. The eastern half was as much a part of my spiritual world as the western half, and I wanted free access to it, the right to work, live, and love there. Maybe a free East Germany, like an Austria or a Switzerland, would be enough for me. But wouldn’t it be more natural for two halves to make a whole?'

On his way back from East Berlin, he is seeing Barbara, his former girlfriend on the plane. He does not approach her but tries to analyse his feelings towards her.

'Is existential fatigue then the result of too little commitment rather than too much? Is it taking things too lightly that wears one out or taking them too seriously? Or is the whole thing nothing but hogwash? Is it nothing but my mother’s work ethic in another guise? Was I simply more tired than usual because there are times when one is more tired than usual?'

Barbara, who had been living and working in Africa and the US, and now has returned to Germany, is in East Berlin about a work offer, says:

‘It’s the combination of the familiar and the strange. I can be somebody  else when I’m in Africa or America, but I have to cut myself off from my home; here I can be somebody else in my own country, with my own people, in my own language.’

I think these quotes form the book shows very well what Bernhard Schlink wants to tell us. The difficulty of growing up, living and finding a meaningful life in post-war Germany. To find ones place, and to come. He is doing it very well.  The book is low toned, but is saying so much, which I hope the quotes above shows. There is much more to the story and it takes new, unexpected twists all through the book. They all give you something to think about.  I will end with another quote from the book, which is worth thinking of.

‘Be suspicious. Trust neither the coming decade nor the coming century. Trust neither the good nor the normal. Truth first reveals itself in the face of evil and in the moment of crisis.’

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