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This is a review of the 2008 book titled 'Homecoming' by Bernhard Schlink. I obtained a copy following a recommendation from fellow DooYooer MALU who commented that she thought this book would be a good read if you enjoyed reading Schlink's better known book 'The Reader'.
What is it about?
The book 'Homecoming' literally means the journey home and the welcome you receive when you have been away, perhaps to war or just on a voyage of self-discovery. The main protagonist in the book, Peter is well travelled from an early age, taking solo train journeys from Germany to his grandparents in Switzerland during the school holidays. The grandparents work as book publishers in the evening and give Peter their used draft manuscripts to draw and write on the blank side as paper is an expensive and rare commodity after the war. Peter is under strict instructions not to read the stories on the other side of the paper: if he wishes to read, they will find more appropriate books for him.
The summer that Peter turns thirteen he ignores their advice and begins to read one of the manuscripts, which is about a Homecoming, but the ending is missing and the story's outcome haunts him through the subsequent years. Later on in his life, he rediscovers pages from the book and draws parallels with the classic book 'The Odyssey' yet he is unable to find a printed copy in its entirety so still doesn't know the ending. He begins to put clues together as to whom the author may be and spends a lot of time on the hunt for him, crossing Europe and ending up in New York on his mission. The more he finds out, the more intriguing the book becomes and meanwhile Peter is on his own Homecoming journey finding out a lot about himself on his way.
The book is quite scholarly in content and includes a lot of philosophy and law content. I enjoyed the pace of the book and found that the last couple of chapters really took a surprising turn and quite a twist to the tale. I think the book can be read on a number of levels and is one that you could re-read and find new things to think about. The theme is cleverly introduced and the story constructed well to keep you guessing as the reader what happens next. I did find the name changing parts a little hard to follow and did feel I needed to concentrate a lot when reading this book.
Love is the main theme in the book, and yet you find Peter's commitment to relationships somewhat lacking at times. He likes women but is able to switch his feelings on and off and is happy to be on his own at times (like Christmas) when others would prefer to be with family. He also seems to struggle with keeping his affections to one woman and always has a roving eye or is happy to hop into bed with a strange woman (although one time it was just to keep warm). Peter's mother is just strange and very removed from her son to say that they grew up just the two of them, you would think they would have been closer but she is a very private person and withholds a lot of information from Peter. A lot of his journey could have been avoided if she had just been open and honest with him from the start.
I found the career progression of Peter very strange. He hopped from computer programmer, to magazine and journal editor and publisher to a lecturer in law and it went largely unquestioned. Surely you would be caught out if you were blagging your way through your career like this? Some of the more academic text in the book on the Odyssey went totally over my head but I understood enough to get by. I have never read or studied in this area so perhaps those with a basic understanding to start off with would cope better with these parts of the book.
I am pleased that I read this book although I must admit I struggled in parts to keep going with it but I really wanted to find out about Peter, the author and what happened at the end of the book so I finished it partly with relief and my curiosity sated. I really liked the twists and turns of the last few chapters although I must admit I guessed in part what was actually happening. I have read other book-within-a-book style novels that just did not work and were utterly confusing but this worked well within Homecoming and helped give the book structure and intriguing content.
Peter Debauer lives with his widowed mother in a small town in the south of Germany. He spends his summers with his Swiss grandparents in their idyllic village which is a stark contrast to the post-war ugliness he knows from his hometown. The old people edit novels written for a series called 'Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment'. Paper is rare and costly in those days and so they give him scratch pages but forbid him to read the stories on the back. He obeys for years but when one day he does have a look, he's so fascinated that he can't stop reading. He's found a thrilling story about a German soldier escaping from a Soviet POW camp and surviving horrid adventures on his way home only to find his wife with a new husband and another child. The last pages are missing and Peter doesn't learn how the protagonists solve the predicament.
He can't forget the story, when he gets older he realises that he knows the house the soldier returns to, it stands in his hometown. What starts as curiosity turns into obsession, he's dead set on finding the author so that he can learn what *his* ending was. Peter has already played out all possible ones in his imagination.
This is not everything that occupies his mind, the older he becomes the more he realises that his mother hasn't told him the truth about his father. She saw how he was shot during the war or did she? When he wants to marry, a picky registrar makes him present all kinds of documents and he learns that his surname isn't his real one. Who is he? From then onwards the search for his true identity determines his life.
Homer's Odyssey the German soldier's escape story is based on gives the novel a loose structure. Peter is a contemporary Telemachus, Ulysses' son, trying to find out if his father is still alive. We can see Peter's search for his father as a spiritual homecoming, parallel to the soldier's physical homecoming. He even acts out some of Ulysses' adventures in his life.
The novel is not an action packed account, actions and reflections alternate. Since he was a child Peter has been interested in justice and its implications, later he studied law and as an adult edits study aids for law students. The novel is written in the first person perspective, so the reader gets to know Peter's thoughts on philosophical, political and legal matters first-hand. They're not abstract reflections, they're always connected to the post-war history of Germany. And with Peter digging himself into it, eager to find out why is parents' generation behaved the way they did, the reader gets an insightful account of the problems troubling the post-war German generation.
The search for the author of the homecoming story leads Peter deep into the history of the Third Reich. It's like dealing with a chameleon, the man has had many aliases, one more frightening than the other. He finds articles voicing an 'intelligent fascism' which interpret good and evil in a spine-chilling way. He defends the 900-day-long siege of Leningrad by the German Army which led to the death of about 1.100.000 people by quoting the 'iron rule of law' which culminates in the motto, "If you're willing to subject yourself to something, you have the right to subject others to it." Ruthlessness is seen as an ethical principle which makes "the siege of Leningrad an act of chivalry".
I can relate to the topics the novel deals with as I belong to the author's generation and lived for some years in the town where it is mainly set. Bernhard Schlink, like his protagonist Peter Debauer, studied law, moved to the USA for a while and now teaches law at Humboldt University in Berlin. I got to know him first as the author of intelligent thrillers which can all be read also as comments on contemporary German political and social matters. He became world-famous with his novel The Reader when it was made into a film. I may belong to a tiny minority or I may even be the only one, it wouldn't matter to me, who not only doesn't like The Reader but actively dislikes it. This review is not the place to go into the reasons, though. I'm glad my aversion didn't put me off reading The Homecoming.
I read it in German and enjoyed its beautiful language. Reviews published in British newspapers mention that Michael Henry Heim's translation is "elegant and faultless". I can recommend Homecoming to everyone interested in good literature and German history. Maybe reading it can even have the side-effect of showing British readers that "Don't mention the war" says more about the British than the Germans.
The German novel Die Heimkehr was published in 2008, the English translation Homecoming was published in 2009.
If I mentioned the name Bernhard Schlink, it would probably mean little to most people. If I told you he also wrote The Reader, though, that might ring some bells. Homecoming is the author's second novel to be translated into English.
It looks at the fairly ordinary life of Peter Debauer, from his early childhood experiences, through to his adult life. As a child, he finds the proofs of a book, minus the ending, and spends much of his time trying to track down both the author and the final pages; something which leads him to confront some uncomfortable truths about his own life, his identity and perception of himself and those around him.
That probably makes Homecoming sound like a very heavy book, and in some ways it is. It takes its structure and inspiration from the Odyssey (hardly required reading for most people these days). It has a timeframe which leaps leaves large gaps (one moment Debauer is a child, then in his 20s, then his 40s) with little explanation of what has happened in the intervening years and it raises some very big issues. Don't let that put you off. As he demonstrated with The Reader, Schlink is one of those rare authors who can write an interesting and entertaining book, whilst also making you think.
He does this through an excellent writing style, which builds up characters and situations in a highly natural way. By adopting the voice of Peter Debauer and presenting events in the first person perspective, we feel we know this fictional character, We understand how he thinks and why he is struggling to find his own identity. In other words, we empathise with him.
Schlink's strength is that he roots everything in the mundane and the routine - there are few elements of Homecoming that could not happen to any ordinary person. The fact that everything is so plausible makes it all the more gripping from an emotional point of view. At the end of the day, Schlink makes us invest so much in his characters that we want to find out how their story ends... even if that ending is not always a happy one.
Moreover, unlike some books, whenever Schlink introduces big ideas or big questions, he does so in a way that ties in with the narrative, so that they are asked almost casually as the result of Debauer's experiences. Like the plot, the rarely feel artificial, as though the author is simply trying to introduce some weight to his book. Rather, they are also an essential part of the plot which are raised in such a way as to make us think about them too.
It's true that Homecoming introduces on many of the same themes found in The Reader - questions of hidden identity, repressed guilt over the war and ideas of justice. Yet, this is no bad thing - these are big questions deserving of serious consideration. Schlink also approaches them from a different angle, giving them a new slant, rather than regurgitating exactly the same ideas.
I do think this is a book which would benefit from being read over a relatively short period. Initially, I found myself only with sufficient time to read a few pages at once and struggled to get to grips with its complex narrative. Once I devoted more time to it, I began to understand the complex feelings and motivations of the different characters, which puts their actions into a far clearer context.
Where Homecoming is perhaps less successful is in the structure of its narrative. Anyone not familiar with at least the basic outline of The Odyssey may struggle with some elements of the plotting, since the book makes strong references to characters and situations found in that epic. You can get by with only a basic knowledge as Schlink does expand on the more crucial aspects to make sure his readers appreciate the connection. However, there's no doubt that the more familiar you are with The Odyssey, the more you will appreciate how carefully the author interweaves his own narrative with that work.
Perhaps more serious is the fact that the overall narrative is less satisfying than The Reader. The story is slightly less coherent and structured. It sometimes relies a little too much on slightly awkward and unlikely coincidence to drive the plot forward and this can strain the narrative, making it appear a slightly fractured. Overall, though, the plot always feels just a little more contrived and less natural than The Reader.
It's also a little less haunting. Upon finishing The Reader, I found myself dwelling on the fate of its characters, wondering what happened to some of them after the book finished and what the long-term impact of those events might be (always a good sign that you have been emotionally wrapped up in the characters). Much though I enjoyed Homecoming, it didn't have that same haunting quality. Once I had finished it, I simply closed the book and moved onto the next one. It engaged me considerably whilst I was reading it, but didn't hold my thoughts for much longer.
A note of credit should go to the translator, who has done an excellent job. The translation from German to English has been well handled ensuring the novel's complex ideas and multi-layered plot are retained without the language being rendered stilted (a problem with many translations). Homecoming reads so naturally that if you didn't know better, you would have no cause to believe that it was anything other than an English language publication.
Following up a hugely popular and successful book is always difficult. Due to its complex, fractured narrative and less linear storyline, Homecoming is less likely to prove as popular as The Reader. Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking book which is both readable and intelligent and one which deserves to find its way on to the bestsellers list.
© Copyright SWSt 2010