Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2009

The Homecoming, by Bernard Schlink, translated by Michael Henry Heim

HomecomingI didn’t really enjoy this book.  It had a strange falsity about it, as if the story were being manhandled into fitting Schlink’s theme and structure.


At any given time there must be thousands of children orphaned by war.  Sometimes it’s the death of one or both parents; sometimes it’s the exigencies of war that lead to brief or unsuitable romances or exploitative relationships.  (Just last week, I read in the press about abandoned children born of liaisons between United Nations personnel and Timorese women). It’s usually the woman left literally holding the baby, and so it is with Peter Debauer’s mother.  Peter grows up fatherless, but chance events set him off in pursuit of the father thought to be dead since the end of the war.

There are moments of great tenderness in this novel. The childhood idyll with his grandparents is lovely, and serves to introduce the shy, bookish Peter and the book remnants which set him off on his quest.  Peter’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend’s son Max is close and nurturing (even though Peter abandons the boy in pursuit of his own obsessions at one stage of the narrative).  The emerging love between Barbara and Peter survives deep hurt and misunderstanding, and there is even a reconciliation of sorts with his rather aloof and hard-hearted mother, who lied to him about so many things.

The main interest is however about Peter’s father’s failure to come home to his family, but the characterisation of this man is obscure.  He is knowable only through his philosophical pieces and the barely credible experiment on his students out in the Adirondacks.  The reviews in the Guardian, Contemporary Literature and The Age make much of the parallels with Homer’s Odyssey but I found the meanderings of Peter/Telemachus bizarre – because he had so much lose and very little to gain from tracking down his monstrous parent.  I felt a brief glimmer of interest when Schlink explained what deconstructionism is, but most of the time the philosophical arguments and mind games about the Golden Rule, the Iron Rule and the rationalisations of John de Baur taxed my patience.  (Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to read it with a heavy cold).

Deconstructionism is the separation of the text from what the author meant it to say and its transformation into what the reader makes of it…it went even further to reject the ntoion of reality in favour of the texts we write and read about reality…if texts are not about what the author meant to say but what the reader makes of them, then the reader not the author is responsible for the text; if reality is not the world out there but the text we read and write about it, then the responsibility for murder falls on neither the real murderers nor their victims – they having lost their existence – but on their contempories who lodge the complaints and prosecute the plaintiffs. (p186)

Schlink goes on to talk about existentialism, but it was too cerebral for me …

It seems to me that there are times when we should accept the limitations of our knowledge about family history.  Sometimes the search for a missing parent unearths a person we don’t like.  This may be especially so in a country like Germany so irrevocably tainted by its Nazi past, but distaste for an ancestor’s behaviour can happen anywhere.  Sometimes it’s better for the relationships one has, to leave well alone.

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