Violence is the central theme in Bernhard Schlink’s novel THE WEEKEND. An aged Red Army Faction terrorist is released after decades in prison and spends his first weekend in freedom in the circle of his former friends at his sister’s dilapidated country house. How was it back then, in the 70s and 80s, how did it feel, how does it feel now? What happened to the dreams and the hopes that drove the RAF and its sympathisers? What happened to those who had not gone to prison? The children, friends, widows, sisters and brothers of the terrorists and their victims? Who is the hero now? The violence is relived in the discussions, in between the words. What about regrets?
To my faint memory, the RAF and its bombs, kidnappings, and shootings were a distant drone, far, far away from my family, my town, my life. My beige dad, getting ready for the office, would adjust his tie, which my mom had picked out of the wardrobe in the morning, and speak of “the students”, expelling a disgusted jet of air through his nose. “The students” would march for causes I knew nothing about. “The students” had long hair and wore beards, they shook fists, they took drugs, they had lots of sex, they sympathised with “the terrorists” . “I don’t mind long hair if it is cared for”, my mother would say, presumably slightly more open to the idea of hairy men getting plenty of whoopee. My father who had chosen an early and lifelong career in the civil service over university was less sympathetic; after all, “the students” were sponging off his taxes and deriding him as “spiessig” (conformist) at the same time. Terrorist attacks seemed less of a threat to our way of life than the insult. How dared they?
In our 70 sqm housing association flat–1 double, 1 single bedroom–the political debates and armed fights were far away. The portal, through which they entered most people’s living rooms, television, did not exist in our flat. We were a little better than that; we read books, listened to worthy music on the small wooden radio in the living room; vulgar, ostentatious, and loud stereos were for other people. Our living room carpet had a fringe and my mother had a comb to straighten it with, several times a day. She would hoover the entire flat every day, but still bend over countless times to pick up specks of dust or any other blemishes on domestic perfection. For many years, I seemed to see her bum more often than her face, always bending over. Maybe wiping away the fingerprints my careless little fingers had left on the surfaces, or dusting the shelves. “Take your shoes off”, I heard as I unlocked the door–unnecessarily, of course, as they were already off. The assassinations of Jürgen Ponto and Hanns Martin Schleyer were as real to me as news items on the radio tend to be; Schleyer’s past as SS officer not even on my radar. I remember a woman in black, with a veil–whose widow was it? Were these deaths punishment for sins or necessary steps towards a new order? Was our world so bad that it required such violent acts to force change? Was death a price worth paying? I was puzzled.I was 14 and my father’s gleaming Volvo stayed in the garage for the weekly shopping trips to Aldi’s; my mother and I got the shopping home in bags, backpacks and a little shopping caddy, and our arms would ache when we had finally reached our flat. Bombs would go off; a plane was highjacked by terrorists and stormed by GSG9 in some place in Africa while my mother and I carried bed sheets to the laundry press.
In the mornings, she would cry, silently but visibly. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing, don’t mind me!” My mother, like a caged bird picking at its feathers, spent her time cleaning, hoovering, decorating, filling our home with her presence and her little girl fantasies until there was no space to breathe, then finally exploding it with the terror of her panic attacks, her uncontrollable rages, her overdoses, and her affairs. I ran away, first into the depths of my own mind and the nearby woods, then under the humid covers of my bed in adolescent boy dreams, then as far as I could to a small town in the Wild West, but that was later…
In the post offices there were posters with portraits of terrorists, killers, out there, apparently threatening us, but I never felt threatened. Ordinary looking women, some men with beards, their faces largely unremarkable. But dangerous and free. Danger had something to do with sex, but I did not know what. I studied the men more than the women. I always studied men more than women. The underwear pages of the Neckermann catalogue, for example. I would start at the belly button, then move my eyes down, focusing on the little hairs some models showed above the elastic, then on the bump in the briefs–there were pages of them, one like the other, in different colours. The faces of the men never had beards; the men might have been working in a bank, perhaps. People talked about the Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe, their politics, their crimes; I looked on from a safe distance. They had what I did not; they knew what I was too scared to know. I never shook my fist and shouted “Down with…” I was too ashamed.When I finally told my dad, he said, “That would not have happened under Hitler”. I left, numb and impotent. My grandfather told me about boarding schools and the war, no women around, loneliness and fear and the cold, but he was not alone; first, other pupils and, later, other soldiers, also far away from home, felt the same. They would share sleeping bags for warmth and comfort and companionship under skies filled with thunder and flashes. He understood, he said, what it was like, having lived and fought under Hitler. We were walking through the woods nearby, dark and green, anemones covering the ground. We had walked there together hundreds of times in our lives. Old bunkers were overgrown with weeds and shrubs; concrete corpses slowly decomposing and crumbling, but my grandfather remained always warm and strong.
As memories are, these are shreds, mostly wordless. Words are fences around these memories, they are never the memories themselves. In the story of the released terrorist, the characters have all erected their own fences, as much to give meaning to experience, to killings, death, and wasted lives, as to prevent meaning from emerging. Hollowed out phrases from a political battle of 40 years ago are razorwire against personal regret or pain. As I read Schlink’s precise and lucid prose, THE WEEKEND frames my own blurred images, the smells, glances, and tremors of my adolescence in an era of terror.