The Eye Loses Itself
The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink
In a state of revolutionary struggle, the operating norms of society are thrown aside, and everyone can be a victim. Innocent bystanders become necessary sacrifices in the pursuit of a greater good - and only if the revolutionaries win will history exonerate them as freedom fighters.
One such revolutionary force was the Baader-Meinhof group, also known as the Red Army Faction. They were a militant communist organisation, active in Germany from the 70s to the 90s, who carried out a series of bombings, kidnappings, robberies, and murders. It is their legacy which Bernhard Schlink examines in The Weekend.
The premise is simple: Jörg is a terrorist who, after decades in prison, has been let out, and invited to spend a weekend away in a mansion in the countryside with friends from his past life. Everyone knows everyone else through a complex tangle of friendships, romances, and rivalries. For the most part, they’ve all moved on from their revolutionary days; they’ve made peace with the establishment and live out their mundane lives. Yet the old tensions still lurk under the surface, and within the mansion there is a battle for Jörg’s soul: will he rejoin the Germany he raged against for so long, or completely exhaust his life in armed struggle?
It is Jörg’s sister, Margarte, who has organised the weekend getaway. She wants to save her brother by integrating him back into the folds of society, getting him a new job, and helping him to reconnect with old friends. But it was her who tipped off the police to Jörg’s activities and got him arrested in the first place, and that guilt keeps her from playing her hand.
Caught up in this is her former lover, Henner. Jörg does not like Henner, believing it was he who tipped off the police. More than that, he resents their relationship, which threatened to take away Margarete’s sisterly love - one of the precious few sources of psychic and domestic stability in his life. Henner doesn’t want to take the fall for Margarete, though there is the ghost of a romance still lingering between them which causes him to reconsider.
Also lurking in the picture is Marko. A dangerous militant of a newer generation, he wants to cash in on Jörg’s celebrity and have him be the nominal author of a new manifesto which declares war against the capitalist state. Marko’s is the mind of a true believer, insistent on refiguring the world into a new utopia:
“You looked at me all evening as if you were wondering whether I really believed what I said… No, without September Eleventh none of the good things that have happened over the past few years would have happened. The new attentiveness to the Palestinians, still the key to peace in the Middle East, and to the Muslims, still a quarter of the world’s population, the new sensitivity to the threats in the world, from the economic to the ecological, the realization that exploitation has a price that is always rising - sometimes the world needs a shock to come to its senses. Like people - after having his first heart attack, my father is at last living as sensibly as he should always have lived. With some people it always takes two or three.” (56).
Ilse has also come out for the weekend. Of all those caught up in radical politics, her heart is perhaps the furthest away from revolution. A former classmate of Jörg’s, she was drawn in not by revolution, but simply by her attraction to Jörg’s intelligence and determination. Her feelings have gone though, and now she is withdrawn and shy, a personality that Schlink cleverly reveals through his capacity for little observations: as Ilse silently listens to the others prattle on, what they talk about seems to her “as random as the pieces with which players do battle on a board.” (52).
Interwoven with the main plot is a story-within-a-story that Ilse is writing about a former friend of theirs called Jan. Jan was found dead, but it’s heavily implied that his death was faked, and that he left behind his family to assume a new persona and dedicate himself fully to armed struggle. As she writes the story, Ilse tries to grasp that mindset: how can you believe the world could become a better place through murder?
It’s a Schlink trope that his characters seem only to exist for the contrived circumstances into which they are thrown, wherein they suddenly explode at each other with repressed passion. Schlink is a mushy, sentimental writer, and this can make the characters seem like didactic mouthpieces for an otherwise invisible narrator. The premise of The Weekend is believable enough though not to undermine what they say, and it plays to Schlink’s writing: there is no time wasted, he sets up the scene and within twenty pages is throwing characters at each other.
This is broken up with the occasional romp through the countryside. Here is Schlink ruminating on the loneliness of walking around by yourself in small-town Germany:
The eye finds no purchase among the trees, the church tower, the electricity supply with its masts and cables. It finds no mountains in the distance and no city nearby, nothing to set boundaries and create a space. The eye loses itself. (88)
This is not just a literary distraction; often it is the quiet moments alone, away from the crowd, in which our feelings take their true shape.
No one character’s voice overpowers the others. Their polyphony reflects Schlink’s gentle, big-tent desire to live within a pluralistic society that has room for everyone. Yet what ties such a group together? Despite their contradictions, they all pitch in to bail water out of a flooded basement, but as soon as the work is done, they all scatter and go home, without so much as a goodbye.
Society is precious and fragile. In an age of liberal values, there is little to knot us together in permanent bonds. That we have families, friends, lovers - all of this is something approaching a miracle which cannot be taken for granted.
But neither can we simply impose a moral framework upon one another. The vicar Karin says it, that we must understand who we are and thereby seek the truth for ourselves: “If not, we are trapped in it. For that reason, however, we musn’t impose the truth on others. Where truths are too painful and we are not a match for them, we all have our ‘life lies’, the lies we need to keep on living… (194).” Society is about giving and taking, condemning - as Germany has done with its past - that which is uniquely evil, but also offering the chance of reconciliation and moving beyond. Otherwise we cannot see each other as human beings, and the conditions for violence come to the fore.
In Ilse’s story-within-a-story, Jan is not capable of seeing his hostage as a human being. When the hostage talks lovingly about his wife and child, Jan sees this as a kind of playacting, a deception aimed at softening Jan’s guard just long enough so the man can escape: “The man is fighting with the means that he has.” (131). When the normal rules of society are suspended - when we are living in the state of exception, to borrow the phrase from Carl Schmitt - every misgiving may be elevated to the level of an existential struggle.
So Jan carries on down his path. He plants a bomb, but has a misgiving when he sees a view of people going about their lives:
The view from the window gripped him. All those houses, all those people, all those lives. The energy with which people drove back and forth and worked and built. With which they owned and shaped and inhabited the earth. And they wanted it to be beautiful. Sometimes they built the tip of a skyscraper like a temple and a bridge like a harp and buried the dead in a green garden y the river. Jan was astonished. Everything looked right. But he was so far from it that he didn’t feel it was right. He remembered the fairy tale about the giant’s toy. In the picture in the storybook the giant’s daughter picked up a plow, from which the horse dangled in its harness, and the farmer from the reins. (185).
Civilization is far easier to destroy than to build. And to revolutionaries like Jörg and Marko, whose minds are locked permanently within the suspension of law and society, no human cost is too high - the exception has become the norm.
Yet for a moment, Jan glimpses a vision of the ordinary life, and is moved by it. This brief moment of humanity is also his undoing: the bomb explodes, and Jan is caught in the burning building alongside his intended victims. With fire beneath them, their only hope is to jump out of the window. Jan jumps out the window with one of his victims, either to life - or to death.
And so does Jörg choose life. He has been pre-empted by Marko though: the declaration of war has already been published with Jörg’s name on it, as they find out when they listen to the German President’s speech to the nation. The President announces Jörg’s release and admits that his first act of freedom has been to declare war upon society. Yet he dismisses this: Jörg has cancer, and on the verge of death, is torn between acting defiant and pleading for mercy. Such a person is no longer a threat, simply bitter and confused.
The news takes everyone by surprise. Jörg has cancer? Having given up on armed struggle, Jörg concedes to his mortality and admits simpler, humbler motives: simply to live out his life and enjoy what little of it he can while it’s left: “Smelling the forest and the wet dust when it rains in the city after a run of hot days, driving on little French country roads with the sunroof and the windows open, going to the cinema, eating pasta and drinking red wine with friends.” (209).
Jörg does not seem remorseful for his crimes. He is a rather blank and emotionless person, having perhaps been broken by prison and dehumanised by a life of armed struggle. It’s impossible to know whether guilt has sculpted out its rightful anguish in him. Yet he is at a crossroads, caught between life and death. Having served his sentence, what matters now is the path he takes, which depends not just on whether he makes an active choice to pursue good, but also whether others make an active choice to forgive him. Only then can he once more rejoin society - as a brother, a friend, a lover, a father.