We are accustomed to thinking of the novel as an art form of openness. In this view, the purpose of the novel is less to convey understanding than to offer an aesthetic experience; it should not draw our conclusions for us. Novels, of course, are certainly capable of engaging with the material of contemporary life, and that subject matter necessarily includes society and politics. Yet there is a widely held opinion—Milan Kundera or Mikhail Bakhtin comes to mind—that the novel is inherently averse to authoritarian ways of thinking. By its very spaciousness, its appetite for competing viewpoints, it prizes multiplicity and eschews single-mindedness. The novel, as omnivorous and sloppy as life itself, bears pluralism in its pedigree.
I suspect that the German author Bernhard Schlink shares this diagnosis of the novel’s function. He is fascinated by the ways in which the claims of grand ideology overlap, and conflict, with the pedestrian demands of ordinary life. Politics, for him, is but one theme among many—one that is particularly important, perhaps, even if it never gains the upper hand. In his most famous novel, The Reader, Schlink posits a romance between a young innocent and a woman who turns out to have a past as a guard in a concentration camp—a conceit understood by some readers, at least, as a calculated provocation.
In The Weekend, his latest book, his thoughts once again revolve around another representative of a violent political ideology, though this time the setting is firmly contemporary. Jörg, the character at the heart of the novel, is an alumnus of the Red Army Faction, the left-wing terrorist group that made headlines in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. The self-styled “urban guerrillas,” inspired by a mélange of conventional Marxist and more heterodox New Left ideas, pitted themselves against what they saw as a decadent bourgeois state in alliance with the forces of global imperialism, its political and economic elite riddled with unreformed ex-Nazis. They conducted a series of bombings, abductions, and assassinations that haunted the country for years and provoked the Bonn government into a harsh crackdown.
The RAF’s grand “anti-fascist” struggle ultimately ended, however, with a whimper rather than a bang. Some of its members died in shoot-outs with the police; others ended up in prison, where a few of its most famous leaders committed suicide after IRA-style hunger strikes aimed at achieving recognition as “prisoners of war.” Still others, as we later discovered, slipped into covert “retirement” in the German Democratic Republic, where the Communist establishment gave them jobs that allowed them to live in bourgeois comfort until the end of the cold war and the collapse of the East German state.
Jörg’s own fate mirrors that of several real-life RAF members. The book opens with his release from the jail where he has spent the past twenty-three years; originally convicted of the murder of four people, he has now received a pardon from the …