NEW YORK (Reuters) - After winning global acclaim with his holocaust novel “The Reader,” themes of guilt and retribution are central to Bernhard Schlink’s latest book as he tackles another dark period in German history.
His new novel “The Weekend” follows a group of once-radical Communists who are reunited when one of them, a convicted murderer and a member of Germany’s violent Red Army Faction, is released from prison after 24 years.
Schlink said the book is about guilt and what the Red Army Faction members did, “before left-wing hopefuls became terrorists — this is about life and individual guilt.”
Born from the radical, anti-establishment student politics of the 1960s, the Red Army Faction, also called Baader-Meinhof, waged war on the German government, killing more than 30 people between 1970 and 1991.
The Red Army Faction executed Germany’s top prosecutor Siegfried Buback and prominent businessman Hans Martin Schleyer in what is now known as the “Autumn of 1977.”
The episode still casts a shadow over modern-day Germany. Just last week, the trial of a Red Army Faction member charged with involvement in Buback’s murder began after new DNA evidence was released.
Schlink, born in Germany in 1944, is part of that post-war generation which had to deal with the knowledge of the Holocaust and its immediate repercussions. He also had contact with some members of Baader-Meinhof.
“I knew some of them myself, and I have spoken to some of them after they have been released or while they were in prison,” he said. “Being entangled in guilt, its universal character, it is interesting.”
While there is a shift toward individual guilt from the collective guilt of the holocaust, the general themes in “The Weekend” are similar to his previous works.
Schlink’s collection of essays “Guilt About the Past,” dealing with Germany’s poisonous post-war legacy, received critical acclaim when it was published last year.
“History plays a role in ‘The Reader’ and in many of my stories; recent German history — that’s what I am really interested in,” Schlink said
A lawyer by profession, Schlink said he came late to writing and sought a creative outlet. Only after trying his hand at a myriad of creative endeavors — ranging from massage to making jewelry — did he realize he wanted to write.
Not until he was 50 years-old, having published some lesser-known crime novels, did he capture the world’s attention with “The Reader.” The award-winning novel was a bestseller in Germany and the United States and was translated from German into over 30 languages. A Hollywood movie adaptation in 2008 won countless awards including a best actress Oscar for Kate Winslet.
“If you have a success like that when you are 24, it is something you really have to struggle with. At 50, once you already have a life, it is just pure joy,” said Schlink who modestly remembers walking down Broadway in New York and unexpectedly seeing his book in the window of a bookstore.
He puts his success down to luck and timing. The second publisher he approached accepted his first book — something he said he would not expect to happen these days.
“I was extremely lucky. It was easier than today when publishing houses look for the best seller and that is it.”
Editing my Mark Egan and Bob Tourtellotte