Homecoming, by Bernhard Schlink (Pantheon, 272 pp., $24)
In 1995, Bernhard Schlink, a German constitutional law judge and scholar, published a slim novel entitled The Reader that shook the literary world. Translated into English in 1997, it became the first German book to top the New York Times bestseller list. The Reader is hard to classify—part literary drama, part romance, part detective story. Its style sometimes echoes the works of Paul Auster, who, like Schlink, got his start writing detective potboilers. The plot follows a teenager who, seduced by a much older woman named Hanna, slowly becomes embroiled in her past. Hanna, the reader eventually learns, had been a concentration camp guard during the Second World War, with a hand in sending Jewish women and girls to their deaths. She is also illiterate, and because of her illiteracy becomes the scapegoat for various other former Nazis who, brought to justice decades after the Holocaust, pin their own atrocities on her. The Reader tackled issues such as the moral status of the post-Holocaust generation in Germany, what it means to be a persecutor, and what it means to be a victim.
Homecoming, Schlink’s first novel since The Reader, builds on the earlier novel by exploring the guilt and complicity of the German generation born after the Holocaust. But the book’s primary focus is justice, and Schlink asks some important questions in that vein: Can evil ever be just? Is justice always necessary, or even always right?
The book’s narrator, Peter Debauer, whose mother raises him in postwar Germany, spends summers in Switzerland with his paternal grandparents (his father, he is told, was a member of the Swiss Red Cross who perished during the war). Debauer’s grandparents edit and publish a series entitled “Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment,” lowbrow books to which they often rewrite the endings “when they found them awkward, unbelievable, or immodest or when they felt they could make a better point.” The boy’s grandparents forbid him from reading the novels, trying to steer him toward more reputable authors, but he eventually does read one, a story of the homecoming of a German prisoner of war loosely based on Ulysses’ homeward travels in the Odyssey. The book fascinates the boy, in part because he has never been able to finish it, having accidentally “torn out and disposed of” its ending before reading it. As the years pass, Debauer cannot stop wondering about the missing ending. He becomes a graduate law student, writing his dissertation on “the uses of justice” and arguing that the law should apply even in situations where “obedience to the claims of justice would lead to doom and destruction.” The mystery of the book’s ending, however, leads Debauer to abandon his dissertation and undertake his own odyssey; he becomes obsessed with the novel’s author, whose past begins to coalesce with his own.
Debauer eventually discovers that the story’s author was a man named Volker Vonlanden, a Nazi journalist who had propagated the idea of an “iron rule” of justice, according to which “whatever you are willing to take upon yourself you have the right to inflict upon others.” This “iron rule,” as Vonlanden describes it—a kind of perversion of Kant’s categorical imperative—goes in disturbing directions: “If I am prepared to be killed, I have the right to kill. . . . The Jews do not attack us? All they want is to make deals, jack up prices, and charge high interest? The Slavs do not attack us? They care only about plowing the land, baking bread, and making moonshine? Neither Jews nor Slavs will be saved thereby.” Vonlanden’s writings lead Debauer to the work of John de Baur, a highly esteemed but just as controversial professor of political science at Columbia University, whose theories, published under the title The Odyssey of Law, are eerily similar to Vonlanden’s. That de Baur’s rigid philosophy, once put into practice in Nazi Germany, is now taught as high theory at contemporary Columbia is a wonderfully naughty joke, a probable reference to the Belgian collaborator-cum-Yale-professor Paul de Man, and also, possibly, a disturbing truth regarding the present state of academia.
Debauer, the student of pure justice, goes to New York to meet the similarly named de Baur, the teacher of iron justice, and their confrontation leads to the novel’s stunning—and disturbing—conclusion. Debauer finds that de Baur has had a number of identities (he may in fact be Debauer’s father), and that his controversial theory of justice is similar to Vonlanden’s precisely because he is Vonlanden. What’s more, Debauer learns, de Baur not only teaches iron justice; he practices it as well. In the novel’s final chapters, de Baur has Debauer and a number of choice students shuttled to a site far from civilization, where they face situations that Vonlanden, the Nazi writer, theorized about. Debauer, the child of the Holocaust, must examine practically—and not simply theoretically—whether, when put in his predecessors’ shoes, he would act any differently.
Schlink’s writing displays many attributes of postmodernism without sinking into the swamp of self-referential nullity. For example, early in Homecoming Debauer strives to decipher the novel-within-the-novel’s ending. The main character in that inner novel “makes it all the way to Germany, finds the city his wife is living in, finds the house, finds the flat. He rings the doorbell; the door opens. . . . But she does not look happy to see him . . . a man is standing next to her with his arm around her.” Then the story stops and, as Debauer has lost the book’s final pages, he must fill in the ending: “Do the men fight over the woman? Do they know each other from before? Are they meeting for the first time? Does the man with his arm around the woman deceive her and tell her the other man fell in action? Or does he even pose as the other soldier home from the war or captivity? Does the woman fall in love with him without a second thought and put her old life behind her? Or does she take him on without love, out of need, because she is unable to brave her loss and start anew?” Schlink thus allows his novel, ably translated by Michael Henry Heim, to follow the Western literary tradition of the homecoming motif—played out repeatedly since the Odyssey—while at the same time unsettling that motif.
Ultimately, Debauer’s brush with de Baur’s evil leaves unanswered whether under certain circumstances, any one of us might not embrace the rule of iron—a disturbing question indeed.