A former judge in the Constitutional Court of North Rhine-Westphalia, a professor of public law and legal philosophy at Berlin’s Humboldt University, an author of several detective mysteries, and an author of the best-selling novel Der Vorleser (1995; The Reader, 1997), Bernhard Schlink definitely has the necessary background to write Homecoming, a fictional investigation into modern history, identity, and legal theory. Besides that, Homecoming gets personal, drawing on autobiographical details and reflecting the fallout from Nazism from which Germans of Schlink’s generation suffered, whereby the sins of the fathers were visited on the sons. Homecoming is centered around a son’s search for such a father, unfortunately one who carries on his Nazi ways even in the United States and in highest academia, as shockingly demonstrated in the novel’s climax.
Before its spectacular climax, however, the novel tends to drag a bit, depending, as it does, on the somewhat dull personality of its main character, Peter Debauer, a law student who never finishes his dissertation, drops out, and, after training to be a masseur, becomes an editor of law books and periodicals in a publishing house. Peter’s personal life has a similar drift and malaise: His mother tries to control him right into middle age, and his various affairs with women are either one-night stands or live-in disasters. For eight years he lives with the unstable Veronika, supporting her and her illegitimate son Max even as she continues to be unfaithful. Later he falls in love with and moves in with Barbara Bindinger, who turns out to be married to an American journalist absent for long periods on reporting assignments. Peter, however, has one saving obsession: He is driven to find out about his father, Johann Debauer, a Swiss citizen who supposedly died in Eastern Germany working for the Red Cross during World War II and whom Peter sorely missed growing up.
The mystery of Johann Debauer’s fate and Peter’s obsessive search to find out about him provide the other main interest in the first four of the novel’s five sections. Readers cannot help but get caught up in this historical detective story, and luckily Peter is better as a detective of history than as manager of his own life. That is because his own life depends in some measure on unraveling the clues of history. Besides filling a void, the facts about his father might make him proud, since his father apparently died saving lives. In contrast to Peter, older Germans, including his mother, are depicted as being vague and not wanting to talk much about World War II, especially the Holocaust.
Although set mostly in unnamed West German towns, the novel begins with Peter recollecting his childhood summer stays in Switzerland with his grandparents. Their middle-class home in a little Swiss village beside a lake is idyllic compared to the shabby environment of postwar Germany where Peter spends the rest of the year with his then-impoverished mother. The peaceful Swiss scene lulls the reader as it does Peter, who has fond memories of the place and of photographs showing his father, also an only child, as a normal talented boy and young man: “ . . . he had collected stamps, sung in the church choir, played handball, drawn, painted, and been a voracious reader.” Although nearsighted, the father had been “a good pupil and law student, and never done military service.”
Later, readers might look back and ask how such a peaceful, idyllic place could have produced such a monster as John de Baur. Even in the Swiss setting there are clues, and not just the “impatient,” arrogant look on young Johann’s face. The grandfather is a Germanophile full of stories from “Swiss or German history, especially military history.” It is the grandfather, who has done his share of homesick wandering, who introduces the theme of homecoming in the novel through his theory that all Germans abroad suffer from angst for the fatherland. Homer’s Odyssey (725 b.c.e.) becomes the prototype for a distinct genre of German homecoming stories.
Like Penelope, Peter’s grandparents become busy at nightin their case editing a pulp-fiction series blandly titled Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment. These four hundred or so sentimental books are full of German angst, heroic deeds,...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)