I’m a “Johnny Come Lately” to this magnificent novel which was nominated for the Booker in 1996. I’d never heard of it until I saw a book programme on TV, on which the Scottish TV and radio presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli spoke about it with such passion and love – consequently I bought it on the strength of that and I owe him such a debt of gratitude for otherwise I’d have missed this wonderful novel.
It tells the story of a group of four people whose lives become connected and inter-linked in the midst of the “Emergency” declared by Mrs Gandhi in India in the 70’s. Their everyday lives and experiences are twisted and shaped by the political crisis in their country and in particular the madnesses of the government in dealing with the political situation. Om and Ishvar are tailors working for and connected to Dina Dilal, a widow trying to make a living, which includes offering lodging to the final main character, the student Maneck.
The book is exceptionally well written. There is real tragedy and poverty and despair in some of the book and in the lives of the characters yet it’s never sentimental or over-powering. The characters were so well crafted that I cared passionately about each of them – I found that I really did feel very high and low they experienced. There’s such poverty in their lives but that’s in the material sense – their values and beliefs and hopes and fears give their lives such richness at the same time as the poverty in which some of them find themselves.
The story follows the events of one weekend as a group of friends and ex-colleagues are gathered for a reunion of sorts when the central character, a terrorist, Jorg, is released from prison on a Presidential pardon for his crimes of murder. There are clear parallels with the reign of violence from Baader – Meinhof in Germany in the 70’s. I think this is difficult territory for a novel – it could easily become hackneyed nonsense and stray into the thriller/anti-hero territory, but Bernhard Schlink handles the subject matter brilliantly. The characters are numerous and while all inter-connected they are also varied enough to be real and the main characters of Jorg, Christiane, Margarete, Henner, Ulrich, Karin and Andreas are all complex, interesting, and human enough to make you warm to them despite their flaws. The only character I struggled with was Marko – he read like a cliché for every banal left-wing revolutionary sentiment ever uttered – but maybe that’s how Schlink intended him to be. The events of the weekend are a combination of reflections on the past and the tensions and the interactions between them, which are told well so that the story moves at a good pace but never feels rushed. The novel very effectively explores Jorgs actions and his beliefs, values and attitudes by finding mechanisms to make him consider and in some senses face up to his past, which add to the plot but do it in a way which avoid being overly sentimental and not in the least sensationalist. It’s this really effective handling of the difficult topic of terrorists and their actions and consequences that makes it such a good book. Jorg is a monster on one level, but the book is so well written that he quickly emerges as very much that monster his actions and words portray, but yet also so much more. I admired the way the novel avoided any real attempt to describe the “actions” / deeds of Jorg and his fellow terrorists and focused instead on motivation and justification and reflection on it over time – it made it a much more powerful novel for that. However the connection he made between one of the “missing” characters, Jan, and the September 11 atrocities was really well written and very believable.
I read the higher profile Schlink novel “The Reader” a few years ago and loved it – again in part for his mastery of an incredibly difficult topic (that time it was war crimes) and while The Weekend isn’t quite in the league of its illustrious predecessor, it’s still a terrific novel and as it’s a short (just over 200 pages) and easy read, I’d thoroughly recommend it.