Bernhard Schlink: The Weekend – Das Wochenende (2008)

Old friends and lovers reunite for a weekend in a secluded country home after spending decades apart. They plumb their memories of each other and pass quiet judgements on the life decisions each has made since their youth. This isn’t, however, just any old reunion, and their conversations of the old days aren’t typical reminiscences. After 24 years, Joerg – a convicted murderer and terrorist, is released from prison on a pardon. 

Bernhard Schlink Week, hosted by Judith (Reader in the Wilderness), is part of German Literature Month. We had the option to choose either a literary  or one of the crime novels. I opted for the first. I have read The Reader a few years ago and liked it. It’s well-written, carefully constructed, thought-provoking and suspenseful. No wonder it was a bestseller. It took me a while to decide which of his novels I should read. Since I’m interested in the history of the RAF (Red Army Fraction), I felt like reading The Weekend – Das Wochenende which tells the story of Jörg, former terrorist, who is amnestied by the president, after 20 years in prison. To ease him into this transition his sister Christiane, invited the old friends to her house in the country, to spend a weekend together.

Family weekends or holidays are tropes I love because they often manage to look under the surface; taken out of their daily lives and put together, people clash and reveal their carefully hidden and often ugly feelings. To choose this setting for the homecoming of his protagonist wasn’t a bad choice but the way it was written was awfully bad. While there were a few scenes I liked and although it was a quick read, the melodramatic tone, the trite symbolism – the book starts on Friday and ends on Sunday with a “redemptive” scene in which everyone helps to carry buckets of water which flooded the cellar after a torrential rain (hello, heavy-handed allusion) – just didn’t do it for me. Add cancer, a budding love story between two elderly people who don’t need to fall in love as they are mature and therefore can skip the intro – read – jump into bed without the nervous fussing  – …

What’s really bad is that this is a book about terrorism. A terrorism which was a reaction to Germany’s post-war attempts at forgetting the past and leaving the old Nazis in prominent places. A terrorism which protested against imperialism, bigotry and hypocrisy. While initially in her first wave the RAF didn’t want to harm or kill people, the second wave became much more aggressive and violent and didn’t shy away from murder. Jörg is exemplary of this second wave. But nothing is shown, or discussed. There are just people with opinions, sitting together, eating and discussing. Each character serves as a vehicle expressing the one or the other opinion on terrorism.

The German newspaper critics hated this book. The readers on amazon like it. I don’t always agree with critics but in this case I have to. This is a book written like a corny genre novel and the only thing interesting about it is the topic but it’s not treated well. I don’t know any more than before reading it. Jörg says that there was a war on and that it was normal that people got killed in a war. On the other hand he is crying over getting old and being ill…. A sentimental man who pretends he doesn’t care that he killed people? That doesn’t work for me.

The book was published in 2008, just half a year after Brigitte Mohnhaupt was amnestied, while Christain Klar was not. It’s ok to be topical in novels but this book makes me think Schlink wanted to exploit something.

At the end of the year we write our Best of lists. I always add one or two worst of books, books that I found so bad that in some cases they infuriated me. The Weekend will be on the list. It’s insufferably botched.