Germanic timing

<strong>Das Wochenende</strong>

Bernhard Schlink

<em>Diogenes Verlag, 240pp, €18.90</em>

If nothing else, the German author Bernhard Schlink has excellent timing. The publication of his latest book, Das Wochenende ("The Weekend"), coincides with two significant releases, one of a film, the other of a convict. The Reader, based on Schlink's international bestseller, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Kate Winslet, opens in British cinemas on 11 Dec ember; and Christian Klar, one of the Baader-Meinhof gangsters, finishes a 20-year prison sentence in January. The consequences of Germany releasing its terrorists happens to be the theme of Das Wochenende.

In Schlink's 200-page novel, the terrorist's elder sister picks him up from prison on the day of his release and whisks him off to a house party in the country to which she has also invited half a dozen of his former acquaintances and sym pathisers. Her aim is a gentle rehabilitation. She has visited him regularly over the years but is nonetheless surprised by his enfeebled appearance now that he has joined her on the free side of the glass partition.

The guests at the party are stock characters - a wealthy dentist, a successful journalist, the defence lawyer from the original trial, a female priest, and a teacher who is also a would-be novelist. The dentist has brought his wife and daughter, the priest her husband, the sister her friend. Schlink makes it ten with the terrorist, but I make it 11. All except the daughter are in their fifties and all except the terrorist have assumed more or less bourgeois attitudes.

The latter doesn't know what he thinks. Prison has arrested his development, indeed, taken away the habit of decision-making about anything at all. He wakes in a panic on his first morning of freedom because there is no prison routine to tell him when breakfast is.

The characters are no more than their views. The smug dentist is provocative. "Tell us what it's like to murder someone," he suggests to the terrorist, Jórg, who won't. The teacher/writer will, though - in italicised excerpts from her work-in-progress. The journalist has a mother fixation. The lawyer is concerned about the wording of a press release. The priest turns the meal into the Eucharist and allows her scepticism into a discourse on truth and freedom. "Some people turn the Bible round and say Freedom shall make you true. But there are so many truths for the way people live. It frightens me that there might be just one." Schlink, who has a second career as a lawyer, balances out the truths and leaves the verdict to the judge.

Where Schlink's Reader featured two well-observed central characters who manage at least to evoke our understanding if not our sympathy, Das Wochenende has a circle of people with no depth at all. Each is only a mouthpiece for society's attitudes to terrorism. Where The Reader had a storyline - boy falls in love with older woman whose lack of education rendered her suitable for no job other than concentration-camp guard - Das Wochenende has a dramatic action so clichéd it's almost comic. During dinner, there's a scream. Everyone rushes out to find the terrorist in a compromising position with the dentist's nude daughter. This might have either spoiled many a weekend, or been the high point, but no one even mentions it the following day. It's sub-Agatha Christie without the crime.

The party is twice interrupted by extra guests. One of these confirms Schlink's talent for dramatic surprises. The other is a second-generation terrorist who conveniently puts forward the pro-violence argument. Schlink doesn't actually mention Baader-Meinhof or Klar but he does refer to the Rote Armee Fraktion. Indeed, his dinner-party maths may have been suspect, but there is nothing wrong with his calculations for when Germany's most notorious criminals might be let out. The clumsy story, its lack of characterisation and hackneyed scene-setting suggest a rush to publish in time for Klar's release and the release of the film of The Reader.

A third coincidence to keep Schlink's profile high in the UK is January's publication in paperback of the English translation of Homecoming, his follow-up to The Reader. Once again the book is a trawl through Germany's recent history as the finder of an unfinished wartime journal written by a soldier on the Russian front sets out to retrace the steps of its author and establish its conclusion. Here, too, the characters are bland, the plot development is weak and a certain sentimentality attaches itself to the writing, so that not even the presence of Germany in Russia is questioned.

There is a sense that Schlink fails to inhabit the minds of his characters. He is merely presenting their cases. One starts to suspect the success of The Reader was due to its basis in autobiography and that the author flounders when required to rely on the imaginative skills of a novelist. Das Wochenende is certainly opportune, but there is more to literature than timing.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech