Bernhard Schlink
Bernhard Schlink; drawing by Pancho

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 German president. The weekend of the title marks Jörg’s return to freedom. His sister Christiane, who has remained devoted to him over the years, seizes the opportunity to welcome Jörg back by bringing him together with some old friends from their shared days as student radicals. This peculiar reunion takes place in a country manor outside of Berlin, a setting that evokes a Strindberg morality play. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, needless to say, and Schlink plays upon the past’s distance from the present to underline a few not-so-subtle points. The revolutionaries of yesteryear now drive Volvos, buy ponies for their daughters, and work in solidly middle-class professions. (One owns several dental laboratories, one is a well-known journalist, and yet another is a high-ranking clergywoman.)

Though a note of irony creeps through at times, Schlink doesn’t really want to bring his characters up on charges of hypocrisy. That would be a bit too easy, we sense, and the reader is left to feel that this is just the way life is: our plans to change the world rarely survive contact with the salaried grind, the compromises of marriage, the school bills coming due. Jörg’s erstwhile friends correspondingly do what one would expect most people to in a comparable situation. They flirt, eat, and talk; they talk quite a lot, in fact. (“But how were they to escape talking?” the author muses at one point, and we can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy.) They also engage in a bit of petty intrigue. It turns out that there’s an unresolved tale of betrayal that runs beneath their meeting, and controversy over the presence of a young radical who wants Jörg—who has never repudiated his political beliefs—to serve as a rallying point for a new generation of terrorists. The faint shade of a dead friend hangs over the gathering, and a forgotten son also shows up just for good measure.


Jörg is at once axis and foil, the reason for their gathering and the exception to their rule. The years have played a particularly dramatic game with him. Prison has a way of taking you out of the profane scheme of things, and returning to everyday life has its hazards. At the beginning of the novel, when Jörg’s doting sister picks him up from prison, he insists on taking the wheel of her car—but he makes “mistakes turning in the city and overtaking on the autobahn.” The worst thing about his long years in prison, he tells his old friends when he finally turns up at the reunion, was the sense that “life is elsewhere,” that he’d fallen out of the world. Looking at him, Christiane muses that

at first glance he was still a handsome man, tall, square face, bright green eyes, thick salt-and-pepper hair. But his poor posture emphasized his little paunch, which didn’t match his thin arms and legs, his gait was slow, his face gray, and the wrinkles that crisscrossed his forehead, and were steep and long in his cheeks, indicated not concentration so much as a vague sense of strain. And when he spoke—she was startled by the awkwardness and hesitancy with which he responded to what she said, and the random, jittery hand movements with which he emphasized his words.

This is not just a fluke of characterization. The author wants to drive home the extent to which the exultant militancy of the old cause has been squelched by the march of time. Youthful terrorists are malevolent, dogmatic, or larger than life; the middle-aged terrorist, graying and ungainly, is a bit of a joke. Ilse, infatuated with Jörg back in the day, recalls how sexy he could be: “When he got to his feet and demanded a discussion of American imperialism and colonialism, she found brave and vivid what she would’ve otherwise found annoying.”

Now, instead, there’s something dustily ludicrous about his defense of his ideals. When he launches into a speech reminding them why he and his “comrades” took up the struggle—“we couldn’t simply watch children being burned by napalm in Vietnam, starving in Africa, being broken in institutions in Germany”—the rest of them feel only bemusement. “Most of them were squirming; Jörg was talking the way people had thirty years ago and simply didn’t anymore—it was embarrassing.” And then there’s simple mortality. Near the end of the novel Jörg announces that he’s got prostate cancer. “I can’t get it up anymore, I can’t keep my water in—am I supposed to tell a woman about that?”

But there is a problem with the conceit of the terrorist rendered impotent by the travails of existence: we are left to wonder how anyone could have once committed the murder of innocents (not to mention putting his own life at risk) for a set of ideals that prove so easily refuted by the passage of time. Schlink is not the only one to have trouble showing us what makes a terrorist tick. In the years since September 11, 2001, we have seen quite a few ambitious works of literary fiction that try to live up to the task of depicting murderous political zealotry. Schlink’s book calls to mind two in particular: John Updike’s novel Terrorist and Martin Amis’s short story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.”

One might object, I suppose, that Schlink’s exhausted secular leftist Jörg has little in common with the seething jihadis of these other two works. Yet I don’t think the divide is quite that clear. The Weekend takes place in an explicitly post–September 11 world; there are several evocative references to the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the young RAF enthusiast in the book who agitates for Jörg to return to the “struggle” even wonders aloud about finding a common front with the “Muslim comrades.” Like Amis and Updike, Schlink wants to show us how the extremists live in the same world as the rest of us despite the political pathology that makes them so different. All three writers want to bring us into direct and uncomfortable proximity with the terrorist mind, if only to deflate its vicious pretensions.1

Yet all of them fail in strikingly similar ways. Updike’s Ahmad Mulloy, the byproduct of a failed Egyptian-Irish liaison in a New Jersey rust-belt town, speaks a stilted English designed to reflect the brittleness of his earnest commitment to his chosen religion of Islam, and constantly reflects, with neurotic defensiveness, on the devilish temptations of the American life that surrounds him. Along the way we receive a detailed diagnosis of everything that he’s running from—but we are left with a gaping vacuum in the place where we would expect to see his active motivation, what he thinks he’s actually fighting for. Amis’s Muhammad Atta, the leader of the September 11 hijacking team, is simply a nut case, a grim nihilist whose cramped hatred of Western vice is reflected in his physical constipation and unblinking misogyny. Islamist terrorists, in other words, are driven to their acts of violence by a senseless and inchoate rage against Western freedoms rather than by a particular religious and political agenda. The terrorists, as ex-President Bush liked to say, “hate our values.”


These portraits might comfort Western audiences with the simplicity of the explanations they proffer, but I’m afraid they do not prove convincing either as political analysis or as art. The lives of these characters do nothing to illuminate why engineers and doctors predominate at the upper levels of al-Qaeda, or why Palestinian suicide bombers have included women with law degrees, or why Ziad Jarrah, the Lebanese September 11 hijacker with a disconcerting bent for bubbly social life, boasted proudly to his fiancée in a final letter about the great act of heroism that he and his friends were about to undertake. For whatever reason, few fiction writers seem capable of convincingly rendering the inner world of such people.2

Nor, as Schlink might have pointed out, can we dismiss all resulting acts of bloody exaltation simply by attributing them to something called “Islam”—or even (as Amis, I believe, would have it) to religion in general. After all, a few years back there were people like Jörg—well-educated, middle-class, deeply secular people from one of the most prosperous countries in Europe—who embarked on a profoundly irrational campaign to spark a “revolution” by means of assassinations and bombing. Those terrorists viewed themselves as noble participants in a war against evil and destructive forces that had to be challenged; the fact that they had to descend into overt criminality to do so could be legitimized by their unstinting belief in a superior ideology.

And this, indeed, is just how Schlink’s terrorist responds when asked to justify his killing of innocent bystanders:

He raised his hands as if he were about to speak and emphasize his words, and then lowered them. He raised them again and lowered them again. “What should I say? In a war you shoot and kill. What are you supposed to feel? What are you supposed to learn? We were at war, so I shot and killed. Are you happy now?”

You can understand why Schlink would want to show us a terrorist neutered, deflated, deromanticized. Yet we never really understand, beyond a few of his formulaic utterances, why Jörg ended up choosing the path of violence (in pointed contrast, by the way, to so many of his radical friends). The problem with taming a terrorist is that we don’t really understand why he became one in the first place. The terrorist defeated, it turns out, is about as interesting as the owner of a thriving dentistry business. And in this, unfortunately, Jörg is a bit too much of a piece with the rest of the book. All of its characters are ghosts of themselves, wanly present in the reader’s mind even as they struggle to reveal themselves through elaborate conversation. One might have expected a great deal more from a novel with such a potentially interesting premise.

Novelists, in general, make poor fanatics. As I made my way through The Weekend I began to feel that this is a bit of a pity. We labor today under the curse of a particular kind of virulent extremism, and yet its motives, its ideological wellsprings, as well as the particular characters it produces remain far beyond our imaginative reach. To be sure, it is not the purpose of fiction to teach us these things. Yet the novel does hold a unique power to project us into alien worlds—or to help us see familiar ones through strange lenses. Novels should be able to do, in fact, whatever their authors want them to do. The means do not necessarily have to be those of hard-edged journalism or cinema verité; indeed—as demonstrated by Dostoevsky’s excursions into the revolutionary impulse—linguistic excess, feverish parody, and soap-opera plots might do just as well. Who will succeed in writing a successful contemporary novel about terrorism? The challenge stands.

This Issue

December 23, 2010