Homecoming, by Bernhard Schlink
I have a musician friend, the son of a divorced couple, who had no contact as a child with his father. His father was a heavy drinker living in South Carolina in a house trailer with several other destitute drinkers. My friend didn’t know this until at age nineteen he hitchhiked up I-85 in search of his father.
Was he disappointed by the eventual confrontation? Yes. Did he regret meeting the decrepit man? No – it was a way for my friend to close a chapter in his then young life – in Schlink’s words, to hang an unadulterated picture of his father in his heart.
In Schlink’s story, we first find the young Peter Debauer living with his grandparents in Switzerland. The grandparents’ avocation is a project called Novels For Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment, and the old couple serve as editors for the series . They entertain the young Peter by allowing him to doodle on the blank sides of manuscript pages. But they admonish him not to read any of the often-risqué writing.
Peter grows up in nondescript fashion and begins to work as an editor. Rediscovering a stack of his doodles, he decides to read the manuscript fragments. The title and author aren’t given in this particular stack, but Peter is drawn to the piecemeal story: a soldier’s experiences during World War II’s battles on the Eastern Front. He then sets out to discover more about the manuscript and author.
For a short while, Debauer moves to the U.S., partly to distance himself from a failed romance. On his return, he slowly begins to discover links between the manuscript, the unknown author, and Peter’s mysteriously missing father. He questions his mother, places ads in papers, writes publishers, all leading him to more and more information about his father, who seems to have been an unrepentant Nazi.
A trip to East Germany (this is at roughly the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall) reveals that Peter’s surname isn’t really Debauer; instead, he discovers, he was born Peter Graf, the illegitimate son of his mother and an unnamed man.
Later, and once again in a difficult romantic relationship, one he braves losing, Peter travels to the U.S. to confront a man, John de Baur, whom Peter is convinced is his father, Johann Debauer.
I’ll say little about the book’s rather muddy ending. Instead I’ll lean a bit on Schlink’s literary devices. He alludes constantly, and in rather clunky fashion, to Odysseus’ decade-long journey from Troy following the ten-year war there, to his home in Ithaca. Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, as you may recall, was a month old when Odysseus left for Troy, and is nearing twenty when Odysseus returns to find a crowd of 108 suitors vying for wife Penelope’s affections. This part of Homer's story, we discover, roughly parallels Peter’s discoveries about his parents' lives.
Schlink uses a prose style in which there’s little if any transition between scenes, the story’s present time and its backstory. He occasionally drops a line of dialogue into a narrative passage, challenging the reader to make sense of who is speaking and why. His purpose here is surely to create a postmodern metaphor for the fragmentation in Peter’s life as he tries to make sense of his past.
But in the end, these devices prove unnecessary. Schlink’s grander metaphor here is the fragmentation within German life following World War II and the still-ongoing attempts to piece together a German nation following its official reunification in 1989. But the meat for this metaphorical stew is made, as the best of metaphors are, in seeing its micro-view: In this case, the manner in which Peter has lost his family identity and seeks to regain it parallels similar efforts to unify Germany.
As in his renowned book, The Reader, Schlink struggles to express here the manner in which the German people permitted the Nazi experience without being in agreement with its darker, partially hidden aspects. Homecoming is a difficult book to read. Certainly, it was a difficult book to conceive and write. As always, I admire Schlink’s persistence in pursuing his literary quest, and his efforts do succeed in portraying Peter as a personification of the emotional complexities of German politics and history. Schlink clearly loves his homeland, and the picture of a difficult, still fragmented Germany he's hung in his heart with Homecoming makes the book worth reading.
My rating: 3-1/2 of 5 stars.