Post- war Ger­mans trace line be­tween guilt and re­spon­si­bil­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

BERN­HARD Sch­link’s ca­sual ob­ser­va­tion about his progress as a writer, ‘‘ When­ever I started some­thing new I felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t fin­ished with Selb’’, al­ludes to the con­ti­nu­ities link­ing his nov­els and short sto­ries and the ways in which they re­flect on his life and times.

Ger­hard Selb, an age­ing private in­ves­ti­ga­tor and for­mer Nazi pros­e­cu­tor sacked by the Al­lies, is the nar­ra­tor of Sch­link’s cryp­tic de­tec­tive sto­ries and a source of in­sights into Sch­link’s moral pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Selb is not only the de­tec­tive’s name but also the Ger­man word for self. Selb’s Be­trayal could equally well be trans­lated as Self Be­trayal.

Born in 1944, Sch­link be­came a lawyer, Con­sti­tu­tional Court judge and a law pro­fes­sor in Ber­lin and New York, but it is through his fiction that he seeks to de­fine his iden­tity as a mem­ber of a ‘‘ sec­ond Ger­man gen­er­a­tion’’, those whose par­ents were in­volved in the mael­strom of Nazism and the Holo­caust, which be­queathed a har­row­ing moral legacy to the per­pe­tra­tors of that evil and to their chil­dren.

In 1997, two years af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of Der Vor­leser ( lit­er­ally, ‘‘ one who reads aloud’’), an English trans­la­tion of it, The Reader , achieved an in­ter­na­tional suc­cess un­matched by any Ger­man novel since Gunter Grass’s mas­ter­piece, The Tin Drum. The Reader is an al­most terse, Selb- like ac­count of nar­ra­tor Michael Berg’s life, told dur­ing three dis­tinct stages but linked by an in­creas­ingly com­plex and pow­er­ful ex­plo­ration of the na­ture of guilt and re­spon­si­bil­ity that blurs the bound­aries of his­tory, fiction and au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

Vom­it­ing as a re­sult of hep­ati­tis on his way home on a tram, 15- year- old Michael is cleaned up and re­turned to his par­ents by con­duc­tor Hanna Sch­mitz. Days later, they be­gin a rit­ual of bathing, mak­ing love and his read­ing to her from works of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture. Af­ter a few months, Hanna dis­ap­pears. Years later, now a prig­gish law stu­dent, he recog­nises her as a de­fen­dant in a trial of for­mer Nazi Auschwitz guards.

Dur­ing her im­pris­on­ment, Michael sends Hanna au­dio­tapes of his read­ings of books, copies of which she bor­rows from the prison li­brary and painstak­ingly learns to read and write. It is only then that Michael re­alises that Hanna was a vic­tim of il­lit­er­acy. Hanna com­mits sui­cide the day be­fore she is to be re­leased, leav­ing Michael a note to give her money to the wo­man whose writ­ing led to her im­pris­on­ment. Michael wanted ‘‘ si­mul­ta­ne­ously to un­der­stand Hanna’s crime and to con­demn it. But ( for him) it was too ter­ri­ble for that. When I con­demned it as it must be con­demned, there was not room for un­der­stand­ing.’’

Sch­link sees Michael’s al­most im­pos­si­bly com­pro­mised love for Hanna ‘‘ as, in a way, the fate of his own gen­er­a­tion, a Ger­man fate’’. It mir­rors Sch­link’s dilemma over how the Holo­caust had im­pinged on his and later gen­er­a­tions of Ger­mans. The Reader is, Sch­link has said, a novel that is ‘‘ also my bi­og­ra­phy and that of my gen­er­a­tion’’.

His re­cent col­lec­tion of short sto­ries is rather sur­pris­ingly en­ti­tled Flights of Love , given that they tend to fo­cus of­ten on stolid, dull and un­pre­posess­ing lawyers. In the col­lec­tion Sch­link re­vis­its in Girls with Lizard the theme of a young man’s psy­cho­log­i­cal anx­i­eties over his fa­ther’s de­tached, emo­tional cold­ness and the shad­owy ev­i­dence that he may have il­le­gally ac­quired a por­trait of a ( Jewish?) girl while work­ing in a Third Re­ich mil­i­tary court: ‘‘ It had to do with the way his par­ents seemed to be hold­ing back, hid­ing some­thing.’’

In many ways, Girl with Lizard , The Reader and, pos­si­bly, Selb’s Be­trayal can be seen as nec­es­sary pre- read­ing for any­one open­ing Home­com­ing for the first time.

Home­com­ing be­gins with the young Peter

De­bauer be­ing put on a train by his mother to travel alone to spend the sum­mer hol­i­days with his grand­par­ents in Switzer­land who, he dis­cov­ers, had edited a vol­ume of fiction. Peter reads part of the story of a sol­dier’s home­com­ing but, be­cause he had in­ad­ver­tently torn out the last pages to use their blank backs for his home­work, he can­not read the story’s con­clu­sion. This frus­tra­tion be­comes an ob­ses­sion. He must dis­cover what hap­pened to the Ger­man pris­oner of war who, fi­nally es­cap­ing from a Rus­sian camp and en­dur­ing seem­ingly end­less dan­gers, re­turns home to his wife, who thought he was dead.

For Peter, the search for the con­clu­sion to the work of fiction be­comes linked in­ex­tri­ca­bly with his own, equally pre­oc­cu­py­ing search for the iden­tity and, if he is still alive, lo­ca­tion of his ab­sent fa­ther.

Al­though there are echoes in Home­com­ing of the foren­sic de­tec­tive work of the Selb nov­els, Peter’s searches are at once more com­pelling and pro­found, the in­sights that he de­vel­ops are ul­ti­mately psy­cho­log­i­cal ones, even though the jour­neys he em­barks on cross many coun­tries. Like his grand­par­ents, he be­comes an ed­i­tor and trans­la­tor, and one of the texts he is sent for trans­la­tion is writ­ten by a revered Amer­i­can aca­demic who seems likely to be his fa­ther.

Al­though he fi­nally suc­ceeds in iden­ti­fy­ing his fa­ther, Peter never re­veals this fact to him. Clo­sure of that kind is not what Home­com­ing is re­ally about.

Peter’s jour­neys, like those of Odysseus, to which he fre­quently refers and which shape his imag­i­na­tion as well as his trav­els, are far more than merely phys­i­cal.

As with The Reader , which is to be adapted into a film di­rected by Stephen Daldry and star­ring Ni­cole Kid­man and Ralph Fi­ennes, Home­com­ing must be read, cer­tainly be­fore you go to see Sch­link at the movies. John Hay re­tires as vice- chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Queens­land on De­cem­ber 31.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.