In simple, elegant prose, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader laid bare the complex, guilt-ridden relationship between postwar Germans and the Nazi past. The frayed bond between generations, and the distance and denial that threaten to sever it entirely, is also at the heart of Schlink's latest novel, Homecoming.
Schlink's prose is still crystalline, but his narrative is difficult and meandering, filled with clever reversals and postmodernist mirror effects. Art echoes life, which in turn echoes art, and often it is hard to disentangle the two. The central metaphor is the story of Odysseus, the wanderer, and his climactic homecoming. It's a tale emblematic of the quandary faced by Germans after the war, when soldiers returned to find their families and homes destroyed or transformed beyond recognition.
Schlink, a law professor as well as a novelist, has always been interested in the problem of identity—an issue for Nazi sympathizers desperate to reinvent themselves for the postwar era. In Homecoming one of the central characters, a deconstructionist law professor at Columbia University, bears more than a passing resemblance to Paul de Man, a renowned Belgian-born literary theorist and friend of Jacques Derrida, who taught at Yale. After his death, de Man was revealed to have written collaborationist and anti-Semitic articles during the war, a bombshell that fueled the reevaluation of his legacy.
Homecoming begins with the childhood memories of its narrator, Peter Debauer. He has been raised by a single mother and spends summers with his Swiss paternal grandparents, who edit a series called Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment. One day Debauer reads a fragment of one novel, about a soldier who undertakes a Homeric postwar journey back to Germany, only to find the woman he loves has set up housekeeping with another man. But what happens next? And what was the real story behind the fiction? These are the questions that the adult Debauer, who works in publishing, pursues with intermittent vigor.
In the midst of this intellectual quest, Debauer finds himself furniture shopping and then falling in love with the mysterious Barbara, who turns out to have competing loyalties. After the fall of the Wall, he wanders into the former East Berlin and successfully impersonates a law professor, foreshadowing plot twists to come. Then, on a fateful work day, he receives a book called The Odyssey of Law by John de Baur. Cloaking his identity, Debauer embarks on a mission to New York to confront de Baur, whom he believes to be his father, with his wartime deeds and abandonment of his family.
If this summary sounds a trifle incoherent, blame the book. Schlink is a provocative thinker, and Homecoming, after a slow start, manages to be involving. But it often seems as though the novel's winding course serves Schlink's metaphorical agenda more than his characters and their motivations. Debauer, confronted with a challenge to his love affair, incomprehensibly (to her and to us) fails to fight for Barbara, ceding the battlefield to his rival. "Women find sad, sensitive, valiantly laughing losers sympathetic," he tells himself. Later, communing with de Baur, he keeps mum about his suspicions and his lifetime of longing, handling the emotionally charged situation with a degree of detachment that is stunning—or simply Teutonic.
In a wonderful set piece reminiscent of the enchantments of John Fowles, Debauer and his colleagues in a de Baur seminar embark on an academic retreat that turns into a nightmarish exercise in survival. The setup chillingly evokes the dilemmas of wartime prisoners, but is the scenario real or, like fiction, just an artful trick? In the end Debauer will obviously have to tote up his losses and redefine his own ideas about home and family. Too bad he does it all so coolly that he leaves us cold.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.