Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Weekend, Bernhard Schlink - Lauren's Review

I really enjoyed The Weekend. Schlink carefully crafts minor and major mysteries, building suspense, through sentences that hint at a larger reality. The reader is left guessing at the relationship between characters and what has come before.

The Weekend opens with Jorg, a former Red Army Faction terrorist being released from jail having committed four murders over twenty years ago. His sister, Christiane, anxious to reintegrate him back into society invites a group of his former friends together for the weekend of his release. Old times are relived, emotions bubble to the surface and grievances are addressed as the characters congregate.

Jorg is the fulcrum from which all the characters pivot as they come together collectively, yet individually examine the ideals and expectations of their own lives. Schlink seems particularly concerned with the passing of time, poignantly contrasting his character’s youthful appearance and aspirations with the reality of their mature present. Ilse is now ‘nondescript’ having lost the promise of beauty she held her youth whereas Jorg has lost his ‘cheerfulness’ he held as a student. Gone are the days where everything lay ahead of them and they would ‘plan’ and ‘enjoy their own strength.’ The reader cannot help but feel that Ulrich’s sentiments that his youthful self feels ‘alien’ to him is perhaps a sentiment that all the characters share.

Schlink suggests that his characters have to come to terms with what they have actually achieved. Margarete chides Marko for setting Jorg the same expectations he held for himself as a young man. She is adamant that hardly anyone’s life turns out the way they dreamt it would but this doesn’t relegate that life to the scrap heap. Schlink tellingly allows Margarete to muse that perhaps what makes a terrorist is someone that cannot reconcile themselves to the reality of their life but instead ‘wants to bomb his way to his dream of home.’

It is clear that all the characters were searching for something in their youth. Ilse remembers feeling as if ‘…she was on the trail of something big…where was it?’ Being former Baader Meinhof sympathisers the group sought the answers to their search in the cause. Schlink hints that this search is linked to that of establishing an identity. However, unlike Jorg, the group of friends have moved on with their search. The identities they have now constructed for themselves within society provide them with a place in the world and a much needed ontological security. Henner is a journalist, Karin a Bishop, Ulrich a business man, Ilse a teacher, Andreas a lawyer and Christiane a doctor. They judge each other’s identities acknowledging that Andreas ‘twists’ words and Karin says ‘pious’ things.

Schlink clearly portrays this reunion and its reminiscing as another way of the characters to cement their collective as well as individual sense of identity and their place in the world.

Schlink sets up the dilemma that our very identity that we seek for security also constrains us and takes away our freedom. For instance Ilse employs her writing as an escapism from her identity as a teacher whilst Jorg ‘carried his cell with him,’ constantly hampered by the cause and an inability to find a lasting peace away from its ideals. It becomes apparent that there is a paradoxical struggle to forge an identity yet to lose oneself or rid oneself of this identity and merge or unite with the whole in order to gain a form of freedom. Henner wishes to lose himself in Margarete who represents a freedom to him and a reconciliation with his demanding mother. Ilse loses herself in her writing. Margarete loses herself in the ‘compelling’ landscape, the ‘high sky, wide empty land.’

However, Schlink tenderly reveals that ultimately we are individuals and we make our journey alone to find our freedom. As the characters converge at the end of the book to help bail out the cellar, they lose themselves in a mutual task. However, it is only a ‘spectacle of collaboration’ and not long before they ‘…would also fall apart again.’ Perhaps it is symbolic at the end that Karin does not impart a travel blessing, they do not swap email addresses or say elaborate goodbyes.

As Jan faces death Ilse contemplates that he always wanted to be free. Schlink hints that perhaps it is only in death we can be free. Ilse ponders whether we can bring the same ‘delight we are capable of bringing to the enjoyment of life,’ to death.

However, the continual delicate dance between the fight for life and death is depicted through Ferdinand’s desire to reconcile with his father despite the suffering he has experienced. The human spirit continues to strive against adversity and reach out despite the fact it is only in its ultimate demise and death that we can find the freedom we seek. Although many of the characters may not be immediately likable or induce empathy, they are well constructed presenting both the vulnerabilities and flaws we all share as they partake in what is both our common yet very individual plight.