Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bernhard Schlink Takes On Identity and Guilt in Post-War Germany

By Dylan Foley

Peter Debauer, a young German boy growning up in postwar Germany is raised with the ghost of his father, a Swiss citizen who was killed while working for the Red Cross. Peter becomes obsessed with a “homecoming” novel of German soldiers suffering tremendous hardships returning from the Eastern Front. The compelling book, with chunks stolen liberally from Homer’s “Odyssey,” has had it’s book’s ending torn off.

In his new novel “Homecoming”(Pantheon, $24), the writer Bernhard Schlink creates the gripping story of Peter’s adult search for the original book, and the grim discovery that that the writer, a Nazi journalist, has important links in his own life. Peter rips through the web of ignorance and lies that formed his childhood, and finds himself on the trail of John de Baur, a man with many names whose modern Zelig-like career included stints as an anti-Semitic writer, a fake Jewish Holocaust survivor and as a pulp novelist. By Germany’s reunification, de Baur has become a menacing and powerful right-wing professor at Columbia University.

“My grandparents did edit these kinds of pulp series to make money after the war,” said the 63-year-old Schlink in a telephone interview from his office in Berlin. “At one point, I read one of their galleys, and the end was missing because I had used these pages and threw them away. It came back to me a few years ago. Though I found the publisher, I never found the end. That kept me wondering and thinking.”

Schlink wass raised in Germany. He was an academic and wrote mystery novels before he wrote “The Reader,” the story of a young German boy who has a love affair with a Nazi war criminal. “The Reader” was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and became an international bestseller.

The homecoming stories that flooded the German book market in the 1950s showed heroic German soldiers escaping from Russian POW camps and returning to a Germany that has been destroyed. The stories have wish fulffillments of happy family reunions or the opposite of unfaithful wives living with new lovers.

“It was hardly an easy and happy homecoming for these soldiers, getting back into a life that had moved on,” said Schlink. “The father of my ex-wife was a doctor during the war. He was one of the last to come back, having been held by the Russians until 1955 There was a whole literature of their difficulty melting back into their families and their marriages. By 1955, Germany looked completely different.”

Schlink’s own childhood was forged in ruins of war and the rapid rebuilding of a post-Nazi Germany, with the accompagning political turmoil.“I was born in 1944. In the 1950s, there wasn’t much talk of the Holocaust, but there was the constant presence of the destruction,” said Schlink. “Where my grandparents lived was virtually flattened and only gradually rebuilt.”

Families were also destroyed and rebuilt, often in strange, new ways. “Many of my schoolmates’ fathers were still POWs in Russia, missing in action or dead,” said Schlink. “Sometimes this created the strangest family constellations, where the mothers tried to be particularly strict because the fathers were missing. There were wives who were very unhappy when their husbands came back because they had lived an autonomous life. They had started working and then this guy comes back to reclaim the patriarchal position.”

Along the way, Schlink infuses much of the new novel with his own autobiography--he is an academic like Peter, he trained a a masseuse, and has lived in Germany and in the U.S.--to explore the meaning of home and identity. “I’ve wondered how I might come home and where my home might be,” said Schlink. “I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life and I’ve lived in Bonn, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York and California. What is actually home and does such a thing exist, or is it a utopian idea that we carry with us?”

Peter’s turbulent childhood full of lies and his relationship with his cold, repressed mother turns him into a distant, emotionally detached man. “It is his mother who lives with the lies,” said Schlink. “She is not open. She can’t be open. She claims she saw the father die. For that, she gets an existence as a widow, then a set of grandparents for her little son. She makes the pact with the devil. She could never be emotionally warm, she treated her son coldly and he became that way. Peter has few relationships and there is always a distance between him and other people.”

Peter follows the trail of John de Baur, the man who may be his father, to New York, and enrolls in one of his classes at Columbia. Peter must decide if he will confront and unmask de Baur. Schlink uses the tortured history of postwar Germany to explore the meaning of family, identity and nationality. At this point, “Homecoming” is a moving examination of personal responsibility and the darkness of reinventing oneself.

By creating the great fraud in the character of John de Baur, Schlink takes the time for a thoughtful, chilling look at de Bauer’s academic use of evil. For inspiration, Schlink turned to the true stories of prominent Nazis who changed their identities and then became promient figures in the new Germany.

“In Germany, there were thousands of people who changed their identities after 1945,” said Schlink. “De Baur was inspired by real stories He left his old identity behind and started a new life.”

In his unique teaching style, de Bauer insists that his students have their own hands bloodied in a cruel role-playing game at a snow-bound hotel.

“With his students, de Baur wants to make them into accomplices. I don’t know the American neocons so I can’t judge them, but I know similar people in Germany. They do not teach with distance, but they want to go a step beyond, to reassure themselves by making the next generation into their accomplices.”

(This article ran in the Denver Post in January 2008)

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