The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink (A Review by John Purcell)

by |November 3, 2010

The Weekend is the work of an artist at the height of his powers – though I don’t think we are to class the novel as a major work. It appears to be the lucky result of Schlink having the time, energy and right amount of artistic confidence when this question occurred to him –

What would happen when an ageing terrorist, gaoled for murder much of his adult life, is freed and reunited with old friends and comrades?

The world would have changed. Friends would have been free to marry, to have families, to build careers, to live full lives in relative peace and security, while the terrorist stewed in his memories, in his guilt, in his defiance, in his stale old ideals, coming finally, we would think, to recognise the futility of his struggle in the face of public indifference.

The Weekend is then a meditation on the changing meaning of terrorism, of social activism, of idealism and violence. It is an examination of  minds maturing of with age, of the cooling of the passions, of the value of the moderate, the sedate, the safe. It is a requiem, too, for the vigour of youth, the blindness of belief, the activity of ignorance, for the passing of beauty and for the loss of innocence.

Jorg, the terrorist, is brought to his sister’s country house where a group of old friends has gathered. None of the friends have kept in touch with each other and they quickly find they have little in common. All wonder why they agreed to come – all expect different outcomes.

Only a confident artist could pick up these wiry threads and weave them into a story at once light and robust. Though mere sketches, each of the characters speaks with their own voice, each has a gravity field all of their own, each is vulnerable and impenetrable in their turn.

Within the group is a woman who has the urge to write. It’s her way of making sense of the weekend with Jorg. So in the midst of Bernhard Schlink’s story we are told another story, a fiction, based on the supposition of fact – the story of her old friend Jan after his death by suicide. The story supposes Jan deceived his wife, family and friends. That he did not kill himself but lived, to become a terrorist.

Thus we are tempted to ask ourselves – what do we really know of a terrorist’s motivation? Who becomes a terrorist and why?

This story within a story is devoid of ideology, the author of this story admits to not understanding the politics of terror, she just wants to know the emotional and physical mechanics of terror. She wants an answer to the much simpler question – how can you kill innocent people and then live with yourself?

I read The Weekend in a few short sittings. You’ll see what I mean when I say that Schlink is at the height of his powers. It reads very well. Schlink has great timing. I felt comfortable flitting from each of the characters, jumping into their skin and out again without warning and was never disoriented, as can happen when this technique is attempted by inexpert writers.

The only criticism I have is that Schlink shies away from a few particulars. I am not too familiar with the political struggles of the extreme left in Germany during the sixties, seventies and early eighties and at times I was wanting to hear more about these organisations, about the politics of the time, what these groups stood for, what they were attempting to do and what they were struggling against.

Instead of choosing one radical group and expressing their particular discontent Schlink seems to have generalised, which means some of the political speeches in the novel lack teeth. Maybe my ignorance of recent European history is to blame. If I knew more, maybe I would have felt more. As  I tried to convince myself of this, I started to suspect that Schlink was pulling his punches on purpose.

And this is understandable, for what it means to be a terrorist has changed in the intervening years between the seventies and today. Schlink would have to write a much larger book to make this distinction clear and this would have overwhelmed his delicate story. Instead he summed up the difference in two tantalising sentences –

‘Our [German] terrorists saw themselves as part of our society. It was their society too; they wanted to change it and thought it could only be done through violence. The Moslems [terrorists] don’t want to change our society, they want to destroy it.’

The fact that he doesn’t really elaborate further demonstrates my small frustration with the novel. But, on the other hand, that he can pin point the difference in two sentences demonstrates the strength of the novel – Schlink uses very few words in very few pages to conjure up a large cast of characters and a diverse range of themes and concerns.  Though full of complex ideas and emotions, tough insights and hard truths, The Weekend isn’t heavy or dense, nor is it confusing.  On the contrary, The Weekend is light, lively, intelligent and beautiful. Recommended.

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About the Contributor

John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for the last twenty years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Head of Product and Chief Buyer at booktopia.com.au.

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