Bernhard Schlink’s new novel, Homecoming, is a rare creation: an allegory that is subtly written enough to function equally well as a straightforward novel, so that many an entranced reader will hardly be aware of its finely wrought metaphoric structure. Schlink, who is a law professor and judge in his native Germany, has brought his professional interest in justice and responsibility to bear on all his fiction, which includes a series of detective books and the bestselling 1995 novel The Reader. Inevitably for an intellectual of his generation (he was born in 1944), Schlink is also fascinated by his country’s recent history, and his fiction can be seen as an attempt to make sense of and come to terms with the infinitely strange story of modern Germany.
Homecoming‘s protagonist is Peter Debauer: born, like his creator, toward the end of World War II, he is a true child of his country’s degradation and fragmentation. Natives of Prussian Silesia, which was seized by the Russians and annexed to Poland after the fall of Nazi Germany, Peter and his mother spend the postwar years as impoverished refugees, though the boy is afforded glimpses of a stable, peaceful life during summer visits to his paternal grandparents in Switzerland. Peter’s father, he has been led to understand, was killed in the war while serving in the Swiss Red Cross.
It would be wrong to give away too much of the suspenseful plot, but it is fair to say that the tale Peter has been told is not the truth. His father lives on, and Homecoming is, among other things, a modern Odyssey presented from the point of view of Telemachus, the searching son who only vaguely senses that his father is alive, somewhere out there. During the course of this search — his attempt to make sense of his own fractured life — Peter meets and falls in love with Barbara, whose family history connects her with his mysterious father. They are instantly in sympathy with one another — but can they live together? Barbara has been carrying on an affair with an American, and Peter is distracted by his quest. To a large extent the two represent the East and West of their divided land: “the Catholic, Rhinelandish, Bavarian, opulent, life-affirming, extroverted western half versus the Protestant, Prussian, frugal, hard-boiled, introverted eastern half.”
Peter has lived in West Germany since early childhood, but when he goes to East Berlin as a visiting law professor soon after the fall of the Wall, he finds himself haunted by a forgotten affinity. “At first I was puzzled by how homey I found the decay, but then I realized I was passing through the streets of my past, the streets of my hometown in the late forties and early fifties, the streets of my childhood.” It is the lost half of his nation, the masculine land of Luther, Bach, and Frederick the Great.
Chatting with his colleagues at the University, he has an almost poetic vision of the seismic historical changes that are occurring.
I had a seat in history’s waiting room: one train had just been shunted to an abandoned platform; the other was due in at any moment and would set off again after a brief halt. Not everyone who alighted from the first train would find a place in the second; many would remain in the waiting room, watching the snack bar close, the heating and lights go off. But as long as the old train was still out there and the new one still on its way, the snack bar was still open and everything was warm and brightly lit.
Back home, Peter renews his attempts to make a life with Barbara. But East and West cannot come together until the Nazi past is found and confronted, and the search for his Ulysses leads this Telemachus to New York, where one John de Baur, a European of obscure origins, has achieved influence and renown as a deconstructionist legal theorist.
The character of de Baur was clearly inspired by the figure of Paul de Man, the literary critic whose youthful Nazi sympathies were revealed late in his career, but Schlink has succeeded in working this true-life material organically into the structure of his story: de Baur is quite believable as a person in his own right, as well as being an embodiment of the slippery amoralism of a certain strain of deconstructionist thought that was fashionable throughout the late 20th century. In his own legal studies and teachings, Peter has concentrated on the nature and uses of justice, concluding that the motto Fiat iustitia pereat mundus (Justice be done though the world perish) is the only possible philosophy, and that “if the world held that obedience to the claims of justice would lead to doom and destruction, it was free to refuse obedience and take responsibility for the result, but justice was under no obligation to mitigate its claim.” Now, perusing de Baur’s work, he is appalled by the “iron rule” by which the old cynic has justified, in his writings, his own unconfessed service to the Nazis and, later, the Communists. The de Baur style praises what was supposed to be reviled and reviles what was supposed to be praised, “occasionally transfiguring the power he was serving into an ethical principle.”
Peter’s final confrontation with de Baur is both terrifying and enlightening, a very different experience from what he had been expecting. The Nazi past, personified by this slippery old customer, turns out to be protean, insidious, impossible to exorcise. But life has a tendency to move on, and a measure of regeneration is blessedly possible both for Peter and for his newly reunited homeland.