Sunday, March 14, 2010

Homecoming - a book commentary

Schlink, Bernhard (translation from German by Michael Henry Heim). Homecoming. New York: First Vintage International Edition, 2009

ISBN 978-0-375-72557-9

260 pages

I expected a book by the author of The Reader to be a gratifying experience, and I enjoyed what I was reading ‘til about page 200 or so when the whole thing fell apart for me. There’s a peculiar syndrome that sets in near the completion of a long project—like writing a book, building a house, circumnavigating the globe in a bathtub (I suppose)—and manifests itself in the urge-to-finish overwhelming the desire to maintain the standard of quality with which one set out. A second factor is, of course, the fact that an author of fiction is as in-the-dark about the ending of his work as is the reader, and sometimes you can almost feel the point where the “how am I gonna wrap this project up and get on to something more interesting?” phenomenon kicks in. The Homecoming, to my mind, reached that point on page 200 where the protagonist ends his Odyssian journey to find a certain author and philosopher—who happens to be his father—by crossing the Atlantic and taking up his sleuthing in New York City. This particular plot “wrap-up” is simply deficient by every standard I can think of.

Homecoming purports to be about, well, homecomings. There is plenty of text about soldiers coming home from POW camps to find their wives married to other men. What do the participants in such a homecoming do? Our protagonist reads Ulysses, and the wanderings, trials and homecoming in that instance become the motifs for this entire story. Unfortunately, these motifs dangle over top of Schlink’s plot rather than supporting it. There’s plenty to learn from the idea of unusual homecomings (like where is home, after all, and can it be owned and bartered away) but this novel tries to do too much altogether, and from page to page, the author loses control of the various threads.

As he does in The Reader, Schlink again grapples—somewhat lightly—with the themes of complicity, evil, goodness and the ubiquitous, haunting consciousness of a holocaust that can’t be undone. Peter Debauer has a ghostly father somewhere in the world, a father who did not die in the war as he was led to believe, but who abandoned Peter and his mother when the boy was still a toddler. This father has left a trail of his meandering thoughts on paper, and Peter—a book editor by trade—becomes obsessed with following that trail.

Central to the father’s philosophy is a theme most pungently described as the replacing of the golden rule with the iron rule: whatever you are prepared to endure yourself, you have the right to inflict on others. Thus, he proposes, evil can be harnessed to serve the good. Thus, many a villainy can be rationalized as an exercise in reaching a “good” objective utilizing a means normally considered “evil.” It’s a mindset where truth and lies become interchangeable, where experimentation on unwitting humans becomes acceptable, where abandoning one’s child has no moral baggage attached.

I haven’t read Homecoming in the original German, and it’s risky to make many judgments about style when a book is filtered through the talents of a translator. I was amused by the comment on the cover of the book, by a writer for The Economist, who (in my opinion) didn’t know what to say about this book and ended up writing: “A beguilingly oblique novel . . .. Despite its intricate, mazelike progression, Homecoming has surprising narrative thrust.” Another cover quote from The New York Times Book Review is similar: “Sensitive and disturbing . . .. The reader’s mind opens to the story like a plant unfurling its leaves to the sun.” Who am I to argue with such erudition?

Well, maybe it’s a great novel. I’m reminded of the warning that when one examines a painting and fails to understand it, assuming that there is nothing there to be understood may be a colossal error. On the other hand . . .

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