Hugo Hamilton admires an excavation of German society and history

How do we like our terrorists now? Can a man with four murders to his credit, pardoned by the German state and released from prison after 24 years, ever be integrated back into society? Is there some fundamental shift in thinking since the events of 9/11 that has forever placed all ideologies of physical force beyond sympathy, beyond understanding?

These are the questions that draw us into The Weekend, a novel in which a gathering of family and friends come together to receive a member of the Red Army Faction terrorist group back into the everyday world of food and talk at a country house in Brandenburg. They also await an explanation. It’s a day of judgment, looking back over the violent, revolutionary past in which they were once caught up in conflict with the capitalist state.

With his professional background in law, Bernhard Schlink has always carried the precision of an advocate summing up before the court of history. His novels are laid out with a clarity of purpose; they are a faithful reconstruction of the human predicament in which characters sway between right and wrong, between accusation and defence, taking his work to such extraordinary depth and worldwide critical acclaim.

The Reader is the story of a teenager who walks without caution into a sexual relationship with an older woman, having no idea what effect this carnal intoxication will have on him. When the woman turns out to have been involved in a horrific crime against humanity during the Nazi past, he discovers that this sexual encounter has made him unfit for any conventional relationship with the world.

The book can be understood and misunderstood on so many levels. But it’s clear that the inheritance of the Holocaust has cast this young German into an obsession that has made him unable to express love. Even though he is aware of a crucial piece of information that could clear her name in a war crimes trial, he cannot allow himself to defend her.

Similarly, Homecoming takes up the story of a young boy sent to stay for the summer with his grandparents in Switzerland, where he comes across proofs of an old novel describing a soldier coming home from the war. But the end of the story is missing, and the boy is condemned not to know the experience of returning home. As he grows up, he never manages to reconcile this elusive need in his own life, and remains lost, apart from everyone he knows.

On the surface, these novels have an elliptical, almost parable-like structure. Behind the seemingly plain glance backwards in time, they open up a vast excavation of German society and history. It is the intersection between personal and political awareness, the enormity of history seen through a small aperture, that makes them so successful.

The Weekend proceeds almost like a stage play, with arguments going back and forth between characters who have become trapped by the past. They perform normal functions – cracking open bread rolls, drinking wine, saying goodnight and sleeping soundly. But the presence of Jorg, the ex-terrorist, has given them a duty to examine their lives and their relationships with him.

He is accused of having no feeling. His son Ferdinand wants to know why he cannot show remorse. His sister Christine wants him to be accepted as a human being who has paid his debt to his victims. And amid this ethical crossfire, it is finally revealed who snitched on him to the police and caused him to be imprisoned for his own safety.

A young woman inspired by the gunsmoke charm of the old terrorist tries to seduce him, but his libido has been damaged by incarceration and he is no longer inclined towards the trademark free love of the revolutionary years. He bursts into tears, and seeks consolation from her instead. We are left looking back with a cold eye at the romantic old days, when Che Guevara posters hung on so many bedroom walls and the sparkle of resistance to the authoritarian state flashed between so many young people’s eyes.

Is it the failure to win that puts an activist in the wrong? In his own defence, the ex-terrorist clings to the zeal with which the postwar generation in Germany took up a resistance that remained dormant in their own parents during the Nazi era. In “the curse of generations”, failures cascade down the years. Though the engagement with history has become the defining achievement of Germany, the generation of 1968 has at times been said to have strayed into a fascist undertaking to undo the Nazi past.

In an impressive novel of closing arguments, Schlink provides the perfect rear view on an inglorious revolution. But he also achieves an explanation for the nature of terrorism in our time. The strongest word is given to the ex-terrorist’s former lover, who decides to put her account into fictional form. She recalls that youthful first sight of a spring-loaded Jorg walking into a lecture hall at university, the swagger of “happiness and defiance”. Now the happiness is gone. All that is left is defiance, and the only glorious ending she can imagine for the terrorist is death.

Hugo Hamilton’s latest book is Hand in the Fire (Fourth Estate). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds