Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink, translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim, is about one man’s attempt to connect with his past. Because the narrator is German as is the author, it is tempting to look at the novel in larger terms, to make it the story of a people trying to connect with their shared history. It might be possible to make a good case for this position.
The narrator, Peter Debeauer is raised by a single mother. He believes his father died in World War II. He is allowed to spend summers with his father’s parents, Germans living in Switzerland, where he feels more at home, more a part of a family. His grandparents publish a series of books in German called “Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment.”
After his grandparents die he begins reading them and finds a fragment of one unpublished novel particularly interesting. He becomes obsessed with it, researches its history, tries to find its author, to discover that the missing author is probably his own father. Few people he meets will tell him all he wants to know about his father. Even his mother is evasive when questioned. His father was a dedicated believer in National Socialism, a supporter of Nazism up until the end. What writings the narrator can find from this period are all justifications of Nazism and attempts to reinvigorate the spirit of ordinary Germans, who were already losing the war.
Are these parallels meant to stand for Germany itself and for the attempts of each successive generation of Germans to come to grips with what happened under Nazism and later under socialism in East Germany? It seems possible to me, but a more knowledgeable critic will have to provide a more conclusive answer.
The book is called Homecoming and this theme permeates each level of the novel. Peter, who is without a home, spends much of his time thinking about homecomings–the novel fragment his father wrote is about a man who escapes a Russian prisoner of war camp to return home and find his wife and child living with another man. Homer’s Odyssey plays an important role in the story with its famous homecoming scene, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors. The reunification of Germany takes place during the course of the novel, perhaps one of the greatest homecomings in history. Towards the end of the book, when Peter leaves his wife and travels to America, he hopes she will wait for him like Penelope did, but he also fears he’ll return to find her with someone else like the hero of his father’s novel did.
Homecoming is a book with a lot of meat on its bones. If your book club is looking for something that will spark discussion, this is an excellent choice, as good as Mr. Schlink’s novel The Reader. Peter’s investigation into the unpublished novel makes Homecoming enough of a detective story to keep the pages turning and the panoramic view of recent European history the author presents provides a fascinating education for readers. There are many parts of Europe’s history during the second world war that have still not seen the light of day. Homecoming presents several of them.
I am not the first person to have a problem with the novel’s ending. I won’t describe exactly what happens here but I will say that I had a very difficult time buying it. In the end Mr. Schlink seems to want us to understand that we are all capable of evil, but the lengths he goes to to prove this point undermine his position. I suspect it is true that at a certain point, under certain conditions, people will probably do whatever they have to to stay alive. George Orwell demonstrates this in his novel 1984. While it may be true that a large majority of people who lived through the second world war, especially those on the ground where it was fought, committed acts they would normally have considered evil, it didn’t start out that way. People began committing evil acts long before they had to in order to survive. The narrator’s father is one of those people. He began advocating for National Socialism early on, a fact that the narrator never confronts and one that is only rarely confronted in fiction.
It seems like there should be another paragraph to this review. In the years since I first publishe this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I have completely forgotten this book. I’ve no idea what I was talking about in the last paragraph above, now. I do remember that I had problems with all of Mr. Schlink’s books. I read at least two of them, maybe three, and they have all struck me as not hard enough on characters who really did not deserve so much sympathy. I think that’s why I stopped reading him.