Book review: The Weekend | Field Grey

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The Weekend BY Bernhard Schlink Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 224 pp, £12.99

Field Grey

BY Philip Kerr

Quercus, 384 pp, 17.99

THE past looms large in the novels of Bernhard Schlink. It threatens to overwhelm, to paralyse. This is the case both in his best-known book, The Reader, about an adolescent who has an affair with an older woman who is found guilty of Nazi war crimes, and in his new novel, The Weekend. History is a monster which can (at best) be understood, it can't be vanquished.

Like The Reader, The Weekend is a short novel with a broad vision, tender, heart-searching, full of ideas. While The Reader dealt with the generation who lived through the Third Reich, this book portrays those who came after, the first generation of post-war Germans, radicalised as students in the 1960s, intent on rebelling in the very ways in which their parents conformed.

The focus is Jrg, a terrorist with the radical leftist Red Army Faction, who is being released from prison after serving 24 years for four murders carried out in the 1960s and 1970s. His sister Christiane has organised a weekend house-party in the country to welcome him back into the world, and invited his former comrades. But much has changed in 24 years. The comrades - none of whom seems to have done much more than carry a banner - have married, had children, got respectable middle-class careers. They, and their families, seem as uneasy with Jrg as he is with them.

Schlink, always a perceptive writer, flits expertly from character: Henner, a journalist, who begins a tentative, touching romance with Christiane's unstintingly practical friend, Margarete; Ilse, a teacher who wants to write; Karin, a cleric, always conciliatory; and forthright Ulrich, owner of a chain of successful dental labs, who has brought along his wife and precocious teenage daughter, Dorle. Given time, any of them might become interesting, but there is not enough time in such a short book to give life to so many characters.

Jrg himself is the most fully realised, though problemmatically so. He is ineffectual, damaged, neither the feisty old communist ready to re-enter the struggle nor the penitent sinner begging to be readmitted into society. When he does make a kind of a speech, he blames the generation before: "We had to fight.Our parents conformed and shirked resistance - we couldn't repeat that." Yet he acknowledges that he became the thing he despised: he, too, took innocent lives.

The country house becomes a kind of weekend prison in which the characters are isolated as in an observation tank. Who will sleep with whom? Who will fight? Into this come two interlopers: Marko, a passionate young radical, intent on turning Jrg into a hero of "the struggle", and a mysterious young art historian who is clearly other than he seems. In practice, very little happens except talk.

Schlink's subject is terrorism, but his attempts to link his characters with contemporary events feel clumsy: Marko speaks of "joining forces with our Muslim comrades", without explaining on what ideological basis this could be possible; there is a contrived attempt to include the events of 9/11 through the story Isle is writing. The question of what makes a man a terrorist is more compelling. Most student revolutionaries grew up into nice middle-class people, he seems to say. What made Jrg different? A troubled childhood? A greater belief in ideals? A stubborn refusal to accept things as they are? And what does it mean to be a terrorist who failed? Jrg played his part, paid the penalty, but "the leftist project" failed anyway (the real Red Army Faction dissolved in 1998). The group around the table concludes that no one ends up with the life they dreamed of, and that perhaps the job of mankind is to live in peace with that. Not bad advice, but it's of little comfort to Jrg. Nor is it enough to animate this elegant, static, set-piece of a novel.

The role of the Left in 20th-century Germany is a key thread running through Philip Kerr's new novel Field Grey, the eighth in a series of thrillers featuring Bernie Gunther, cop-turned-private-eye operating in mid-century Berlin. His last book, If The Dead Rise Not, won the Ellis Peters Award.

The novels mix fast-talking, hardboiled crime writing and ambitious, well-researched historical fiction delivered in Gunther's witty, sardonic monologue. If Kerr has fun giving cameos to leading Nazis (Goebbels is amusingly described as "a malignant goblin on his best behaviour") he gets away with it because he knows his stuff. For those who know less, there is at times a danger of coming adrift on a tide of names and acronyms.

But Kerr's intentions are also much more serious. The series tends to explore the tension between the crimes Gunther is called upon to investigate and the larger crimes being commited by the state. But in this novel, as Gunther confronts his own wartime experiences, it is perhaps inevitable that this question will overshadow any minor murders he manages to solve along the way.

Field Grey finds Gunther in Cuba in 1954, about to make a break for Haiti with a pretty young Communist assassin when both are arrested by an American patrol and taken to - of all places - Guantanamo Bay. Kerr is clearly enjoying the irony.The lights of the military base are "a vision of the future in which American democracy ruled the world with a Colt in one hand and a stick of chewing gum in the other … Americans and not Germans were now the master race, and Uncle Sam had replaced Hitler and Stalin as the face of the new empire."

Gunther is then taken back to Berlin, where his American interrogation continues. The concern is the Cold War, the focus is Erich Mielke, a Communist who shot two policemen in Berlin in 1931, and who escaped before Gunther (then a policeman) could bring him to justice. He tells how his path crossed Mielke's, and the men's fates became intertwined. In the process, he relives his experiences under the Third Reich, when he was forced to become an SS officer, commanding a firing squad executing Russian POWs in Belarus.

How does a man with a conscience negotiate such territory? Gunther complains to Divisional Command about the slaughter of innocent citizens on the grounds that they are Jewish. He runs up against men intent on following orders, and has a narrow escape. His reprieve is to run undercover missions for the infamous General Heydrich. He freely admits that the very fact that he survived implies a certain degree of complicity.

Yet few can afford to see things in black and white. It's hardly surprising that it riles Gunther when the Americans claim the moral high ground: "You're much worse than the Gestapo," he tells them. "They didn't pretend they were defending the free world … You're the worst kind of fascists. The kind that think they're liberals." Somehow in Erich Mielke - a character not unlike the young Jrg - he finds more to admire than in either of the regimes seeking to bring Mielke to justice.

Field Grey is ambitious in approaching these complex questions, and Kerr does it with flourishes of daring (at one point, Kerr has Gunther imprisoned in the very cell where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, conversing with the Fuhrer's ghost). Though there is no shortage of crimes in this book, it all but leaves the conventions of crime writing behind to do something more complex and perhaps more satisfying.