The New York Times
Homecomingby Bernhard Schlink
Growing up with his mother in Germany, Peter Debauer knows little about his father, an apparent victim of the Second World War. But when he stumbles upon a few pages from a long-lost novel, Peter embarks on a quest that leads him across Europe to the United States, chasing fragments of a story within a story and a master of disguises who may or may not exist.… See more details below
Growing up with his mother in Germany, Peter Debauer knows little about his father, an apparent victim of the Second World War. But when he stumbles upon a few pages from a long-lost novel, Peter embarks on a quest that leads him across Europe to the United States, chasing fragments of a story within a story and a master of disguises who may or may not exist. Homecoming is a tale of fathers and sons, men and women, war and peace. It reveals the humanity that survives the trauma of war and the ongoing possibility for redemption.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Peter Dabauer's determined search for an author and the ending of a book marks the starting point for his own literary journey, but his answers yield only more questions in Schlink's new novel. Dabauer's life symbolically resembles the book's exploits while he is further befuddled by increasing discoveries about his own path and its connection to the potential author. Like all quests, his is not particularly linear and he is often interrupted by his own present-day tribulations. Paul Michael keeps readers enthralled with a soft and mellow voice that connects words and sentences fluidly. He instills Dabauer's first-person tone with a light Germanic accent, which personalizes Dabauer to listeners. Simultaneous release with the Pantheon hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 15, 2007). (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Schlink's phenomenal The Readeris a hard act to follow, and while this new work doesn't quite measure up, it's still very, very good. Raised in post-World War II Germany by a tight-lipped single mother who consents to send him off to Switzerland each summer to visit his paternal grandparents, Peter Debauer jostles modestly through life. In childhood, he became fascinated with a set edited by his grandfather called Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainmentand particularly with the story of a returning soldier that has poignant personal echoes. Tracking down the apartment where he believes the story took places leads him not only to a complicated affair with a woman named Barbara but to questions about his father, presumably lost during the war. The truth turns out to be unsettlingly different, and Peter ends up in New York on a mission. Neatly tucked into the present, the slow unfolding of Peter's past is intriguing, and the novel climaxes with some frighteningly intense scenes. The one surprise is that the language can sometimes sound routine, even clichéd, which may be the translation. Nevertheless, this is definitely recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/07.]
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. --Brooke Allen
Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Read an Excerpt
When I was young, I spent the summer holidays with my grandparents in Switzerland. My mother would take me to the station and put me on the train, and when I was lucky I could stay put and arrive six hours later at the platform where Grandfather would be waiting for me. When I was less lucky, I had to change trains at the border. Once I took the wrong train and sat there in tears until a friendly conductor dried them and after a few stations put me on another train, entrusting me to another conductor, who then in similar fashion passed me on to the next, so that I was transported to my goal by a whole relay of conductors.
I enjoyed those train trips: the vistas of passing towns and landscapes, the security of the compartment, the independence. I had ticket and passport, food and reading; I needed no one and had no one telling me what to do. In the Swiss trains I missed the compartments, but then every seat was either a window or aisle seat and I didn’t need to fear being squeezed between two people. Besides, the bright wood of the Swiss seats was smarter than the red-brown German plastic, just as the gray of the coaches, the trilingual inscription “SBB—CFF—FFS,” and the coat of arms with the white cross in the red field were nobler than the dirty green with the inscription “DB.” I was proud to be half Swiss even though I was more at home with both the shabbiness of the German trains and the shabbiness of the city my mother and I lived in and the people we lived with.
The station of the city on the lake, the goal of my journey, was the end of the line. The moment I set foot on the platform I couldn’t miss Grandfather: he was a tall, powerful man with dark eyes, a bushy white mustache, and a bald pate, wearing an off-white linen jacket and straw hat and carrying a walking stick. He radiated reliability. I thought of him as tall even after I outgrew him and powerful even after he had to lean on the walking stick. As late as my student days he would occasionally take my hand during our walks. It made me uncomfortable but did not embarrass me.
My grandparents lived a few towns away on the lake, and when the weather was fine Grandfather and I would take the boat there rather than the train. The boat I liked best was the big old paddle-steamer, the one that let you see the engine’s glistening oil-coated bronze-and-steel rods and cages in the middle at work. It had many decks, covered and uncovered. We would stand on the open foredeck, breathe the wind in, and watch the small towns appear and disappear, the gulls circle the ship, the sailboats flaunt their billowing sails, and the water-skiers perform their tricks. Sometimes we could make out the Alps behind the hills, and Grandfather would identify the peaks by name. Each time I found it a miracle that the path of light cast by the sun on the water, glistening serenely in the middle and shattering into prancing slivers on the edges, followed along with the boat. I am sure that early on Grandfather laid out the optical explanation for it, but even today I think of it as a miracle. The path of light begins wherever I happen to be.
In the summer of my eighth year my mother had no money for a ticket. She found a long-distance truck driver—I have no idea how—to take me to the border and hand me over to another driver, who would drop me off at my grandparents’ house.
We were to meet at the freight depot. My mother was busy and could not stay. She deposited me and my suitcase at the entrance and ordered me not to budge from the spot. I stood there anxiously watching each passing truck, relieved and discouraged in turn as they passed. They were bigger and made more of a roar and stink than I had realized: they were monsters.
I don’t know how long I waited. I was too young to have a watch. After a while I perched on my suitcase and jumped up whenever a truck seemed to slow down and want to stop. Finally one did stop. The driver hoisted me and the suitcase into the cabin, and his mate placed me in the bed behind the seat. They told me to keep my mouth shut and my head below the side of the bed and sleep. It was still light, but even after it got dark I couldn’t sleep. At first the driver or his mate would turn and curse me if my head stuck up above the bed; then they forgot about me, and I could look outside.
My field of vision was narrow, but I was able to watch the sun go down through the passenger-seat window. I caught only fragments of the conversation between the driver and his mate: it had to do with the Americans and the French, deliveries and payments. I was almost lulled to sleep by the regularly recurring sound, the regular, restrained tremor of the truck as it passed over the large slabs forming the surface of the Autobahn in those days. But the Autobahn soon came to an end, and we drove over bad, hilly country roads, where the driver could not dodge the potholes and was constantly shifting gears. It was an uneasy journey through the night.
The truck kept stopping: faces would appear in the side windows, the driver and his mate would climb in and out, let down the tailboard, shove the cargo around and restack it. Many of the stops were factories and warehouses with bright lights and loud voices; others were dark filling stations, rest areas, and open fields. The driver and his mate may well have combined their official duties with a bit of business on the side—smuggling or fencing—which lengthened their time on the road.
In any case, by the time we reached the border the truck I was supposed to meet had left, and I spent the dawn hours in a town whose name I do not recall. The main square had a church, a new building or two, and many roofless buildings with empty windows. As it began to get light, people came to set up a market, hauling sacks, crates, and baskets on large, flat two-wheeled carts, to which they had hitched themselves between the shafts with loops over their shoulders. All night I had been afraid of the captain and his helmsman, of being attacked by pirates, of having to pee. Now I was afraid both of being picked up by someone who would do as he pleased with me and of going unnoticed, being left to my own devices.
Just as the sun grew so warm that I began to feel uncomfortable on the fully exposed bench, from which I dared not stray, a car with an open top stopped at the side of the road. The driver remained in the car, but the woman beside him got out, put my suitcase in the trunk, and pointed to the backseat. Whether it was the large car, the fancy clothes the driver and his companion wore, the self-assured and nonchalant way they had of moving, or the fact that just over the Swiss border they bought me my very first ice cream—for a long time thereafter I pictured them whenever I heard or read about the rich. Were they smugglers or fences like the truck drivers? I found them equally creepy, though they were young and treated me with consideration, like a little brother, and delivered me to my grandparents in time for lunch.
The house my grandparents lived in had been built by a globetrotter of an architect: it had eaves supported by artfully hewn wooden struts, a formidable mezzanine bay window, a top-floor balcony adorned with gargoyles, and windows framed by round stone-in-stone arches—a combination colonial country seat, Spanish fortress, and Romanesque cloister. Yet it held together.
The garden helped to make it a whole: there were two tall fir trees to the left of the house, a large apple tree to the right, a thick old box hedge in front, and wild vines climbing up the walls. The garden was spacious: there was a veritable meadow between the street and the house; there were vegetable beds, tomato and bean plants, raspberry, blackberry, and currant bushes, a compost pile to the right of the house, and, to the left, a wide gravel path leading to the rear entrance, which was framed by two hydrangea bushes. The gravel would crunch underfoot, and by the time Grandfather and I had reached the entrance Grandmother would have heard us coming and opened the door.
The crunch of the gravel, the buzz of the bees, the scratch of the hoe or rake in the garden—since those summers at my grandparents’ these have been summer sounds; the bitter scent of the sun-drenched boxwood, the rank odor of the compost, summer smells; and the stillness of the early afternoon, when no child calls, no dog barks, no wind blows, summer stillness. The street where my mother and I lived was full of traffic. Whenever a tram or truck drove by, the windows rattled, and whenever the machines used to demolish and reconstruct the neighborhood buildings bombed during the war went into operation, the floors shook. There was little or no traffic where my grandparents lived, neither in front of the house nor in the nearby town. Whenever a horse and cart drove past, my grandfather would tell me to fetch a shovel and pail and we would coolly collect the dung for the compost pile.
The town had a train station, a landing stage for boats, a few shops, and two or three restaurants, one of which served no alcohol, and my grandparents sometimes took me there for Sunday lunch. Every other day, Grandfather made the rounds of the dairy, the baker’s, and the cooperative grocer’s, with occasional side trips to the pharmacy or shoemaker’s. He wore his off-white linen jacket and a likewise off-white linen cap and carried a notebook in his pocket, one that Grandmother had made by sewing together bits and pieces of blank paper and that he used for shopping lists. He held his walking stick in one hand and my hand in the other. I carried the old leather shopping bag, which, since we made the rounds every other day, was never so full as to weigh me down.
Did Grandfather take me shopping every other day just to make me happy? I loved going shopping: the smell of the Appenzeller and Gruyère in the dairy, the scent of the fresh bread in the bakery, the variety and quantity of food in the grocery. It was so much nicer than the small shop my mother sent me to because she could buy on credit there.
After our shopping expedition we would walk to the lake, feed the swans and ducks with stale bread, and watch the boats sail past or take on and let off passengers. I felt the stillness here as well. The waves beating against the seawall—that too was a summer sound.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Homecoming is a thrilling yet heart warming story of a sons journey to discover his father. I loved how each of his relationships either with his grandparents, mother, or ex-girlfriends son was so in-depth and surprising. All of Schlinks novels have wonderful unsuspected endings. I could not set this book down. Wonderful, compelling, almost as good as "The Reader."
I didn't like this novel. Found it hard to read. Couldn't understand it. Don't recommend it.
Bernhard Schlink stunned the reading public with his brilliant novel 1999 THE READER and once again with HOMECOMING he proves he is one of our most important authors today. Written in German and translated by Michael Henry Heim, HOMECOMING addresses, as did THE READER, the prolonged impact of the WW II fall of Germany on the lives of those who survived it. Not only is this a gripping story of a deserted son's search for his mysterious father, it is also a treatise reflecting on the horrors of evil and challenges the responsibility of those who perpetrated it and those who 'allowed' or were victims of its perpetration. There is much profound philosophy in these pages, enough to make the reader stop, think, turn to other resources for references, and become transported by the mind of a truly gifted writer. Peter DeBauer was raised by his distant mother who refused to inform him about his father, a mysterious man who apparently wrote novels edited and published by is own parents (Peter's paternal grandparents with whom he has an intense bond) yet 'disappeared' form his life to become involved in surviving the war by moving to Switzerland and eventually to America where he became established as a political science professor at Columbia University where, as John De Bauer, he became a highly regarded professor and mind manipulator. The story concerns Peter's quest for finding his father, a journey that places him in locations throughout Europe, seeking bits and fragments of information from anyone even slightly connected with the information he has about his father, finding solace and love from various women, and eventually results in his compulsive trip to New York to investigate the infamous John De Bauer, only to be caught up in a fascinating retreat in the frozen tundra of Upstate New York, learning the truth about his shadowy father. 'Sometimes I feel a longing for the Odysseus who learned the tricks and lies of the confidence man..., set out restless in the world, sought adventure and came out on top, won over my mother with his charm, and made up novels with great gusto and theories with playful levity. But I know it is not Johann Debauer or John De Baur I long for it is the image I have made of my father and hung in my heart.' The magic of reading Schlink's books is the discovery of a mixture of brilliant story development with indelibly rich characters and the sharing of philosophizing about death, murder, suicide, guilt, and history's influence on who we will become. 'At what degree of cold, hunger, pressure, or fear does the layer of civilization start to peel away?' Yes, other writers are dealing with the scars left on the German mind living in the aftermath of the atrocities of national guilt. But few do it so eloquently and with such brilliant skill as Bernhard Schlink. At novel's end, the reader is consumed with the desire to start the book all over again. Highly recommended. Grady Harp