In The Weekend by Berhard Schlink, the author of the highly praised The Reader, a group of former compatriots gather together at a run-down countryside mansion to welcome the release from prison of their former leader, Jorg, a pardoned German political terrorist. Little happens during the weekend other than talk, many questions, recollections, and a good deal of food and drink. But the tension among these people is powerful and the arguments among them raise issues that cannot be easily dismissed today.
The group consists of Jorg and his sister and those she invited for the weekend--a lawyer, a journalist a cleric, an aspiring novelist, a dental technician and various spouses and children. Other than one younger guest, who urges a return to “the struggle” and bemoans the betrayal of the revolution by the others, most have made their compromises, rejoined society, and found their way to being good citizens.
It rains a lot, some pair off, others go for walks around the extensive grounds. But mostly they gather round the table to argue about the legitimacy of their violent revolutionary past and its many victims.
The book recalls the 1970s militant campaigns of the left-wing Baader-Meinhof gang and in its later stages the Red Army faction. One is also reminded of similar groups in Italy and Japan that formed after World War II. An argument can be made that the individuals who joined these groups felt they had to make up for the conformity and lack of resistance of their parents to the fascist states in which they lived. As Jorg explains it,
“Our parents conformed and shirked resistance—we couldn’t repeat that. We couldn’t simply watch children being burned by napalm in Vietnam, starving in Africa, being broken in institutions in Germany.”
Otherwise he says very little. In a way, he seems a broken man, trying to adjust to life outside the prison and the demands it now places upon him. He needs a job and in the end accepts an offer to work in the dental technician’s office. Whatever happened to the fight against oppression? Perhaps it simply became tedious, as implied by the remark of one of the guests.
“When I started my studies, all that counted was existentialism, at the end of my studies everyone was keen on analytic philosophy, and twenty years ago Kant and Hegel came back. The problems of existentialism hadn’t been solved, nor had those of analytic philosophy. People were simply fed up with them.”
Still the fact that it may no longer be fashionable to speak of existentialism or analytic philosophy or oppression, for that matter, doesn’t mean the questions they posed have been answered.
Jorg’s estranged son also appears mid-way in the novel, disguised as an architectural historian who challenges his father to account for breaking up his family and the brutality of his terrorists actions. Jorg replies, “I know I have been wrong and made mistakes. I just want the respect due to someone who has given everything for a larger cause and a good one.”
His son then asks him, “What mistakes?” Jorg responds, “The victims. A struggle that doesn’t lead to success doesn’t justify victims.” The conversation continues—pass the rolls, is there any more coffee? And yet throughout there is the lingering, more general question: If you cannot win the struggle, should you not take it up?
Some critics have said The Weekend is a “bad novel,” that it is boring and ponderous or that “the characters are dead on the page.” I found it otherwise. The novel is not meant as a character study or mystery, or one with a good deal of action. Rather, it is one of moral reflection, especially for Germans who cannot easily forget their heritage or walk away from it.
The Weekend ends as if nothing momentous had gone on. “As easily as the friends had formed themselves into a whole, they would also fall apart again.” And one by one each of them drives away down the muddy road to their home.