‘The Weekend’: Terrorism Without Any Terror

I have to admit that I’m not an avid fan of the novel written, in part or in whole, about 9/11. The issue with me is partially that it’s still too soon, not from a grief and mourning perspective, but from an objective historical perspective, to get a real handle on it. Even though what I’m about to relate happened almost five years ago, I think it’s still relevant to a degree today.

When the film United 93 came out in 2006, I was in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada, with my then girlfriend on a tour of the region’s wine country. We woke up one morning at a Bed and Breakfast we were staying at to American talk radio, presumably from Buffalo, New York, and the American announcers were imploring people to go out and see that film on its opening weekend. Why? So that they could remember what it was like on that September morning, and, in their words that I remember to this day, “stay angry”.

That really ground my gears. Is that the whole point of books and films about 9/11 – for some Americans to remain embroiled in their collective outrage? Are books and films about the event just ammunition for particular Americans to justify the wars, as necessary as they may or may not be, in Afghanistan and Iraq? Are such books and films, no matter what their author’s intentions were, used by some as mere propaganda? I have to wonder.

Plus, I would argue that there are some precedents in works of art about history that arrived perhaps too soon. While it’s a great film entertainment-wise and I would implore people to see it, Charlie Chaplin went on record to say that if he had known the true extent of the Nazi’s atrocities, he never would have made 1940’s The Great Dictator. Maybe he had a point, because poking fun at the concentration camps and making its Hitler-like figurehead somewhat sympathetic and likeable, as he does in that film, can make the modern viewer a little queasy.

As well, being that it was an American event, there’s a sense of 9/11 being somehow larger than life itself – to Americans. It happened to America directly on its shores, as opposed to events such as the World Wars (discounting, perhaps, Pearl Harbour, and I don’t think there was a noteworthy novel written about that pounding in the decade after it happened), which gives the act of writing about 9/11 a whiff of the feeling that this story is somehow more important than any other historical events because America is pretty much the lone global superpower left.

I went to a lot of poetry readings in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and there was a lot of overbearing work about the topic. (I’ll be honest, though: I did try and largely flail at writing a 9/11 poem, as well.) To me, in retrospect, it seemed that this was an American tragedy, North Americans had to somehow own it in their writing, making them feel, maybe, that sharing grief and rage with the world made it an Important Event – perhaps more so than even greater massacres in human history. It makes me wonder how the Kulaks felt in Stalinist Russia, because even though 20 million of them died under Stalin’s reign, I haven’t read the Great Kulak Novel.

I bring this up because Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, The Weekend, is about terrorism and its after-effects. Being a novel written in the post-9/11 aftermath it does, to a greater or lesser extent, deal with that very subject. I was hoping that this would be a book that would touch on a lesser known and written about group of terrorists – that being the Baader-Meinhof sympathizers of leftist anarchists that plagued Germany throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s – but, alas, Schlink, who splits his time between Berlin and New York, felt at least somewhat compelled to write about September 11 in that one of the characters of this novel, who actually writes a novel within the confines of this novel, is obsessed with the people who jumped from the World Trade Centre after the jets collided with the buildings. (And in a wholly fantastical and unnecessary move, that same character imagines a German terrorist actually being trapped in the Windows on the World restaurant when the planes hit.)

Now, one could argue that it is apt and perhaps a much-needed thing to talk about 9/11 in the context of terrorism in the year 2011. However, you can add The Weekend to a pile of books, which includes the recent World and Town written by Gish Jen, that doesn’t adequately address the topic, aside from a blush at trying to come to grips with a world where some people feel the need to use violence to get their political or fundamentally religious points across. The Gish book, arguably, just barely touched on the subject of 9/11, making this reader wonder why it was even inserted, and if it just seemed to be the hip and cool thing to write about in order to make the novel appear more topical.

The Weekend is another disappointment, for both treating the subject matter on a very surface level, and for the lesser reason that it’s obvious that Schlink is a talented writer. He is best known for a novel dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust on Germany called The Reader, which was not only an Oprah’s Book Club selection, but was fairly recently turned into a movie that happened to net Kate Winslet a Best Actress Oscar. However, it pains me to say that The Weekend is a light and superficial novel that side-steps the core issues of his subject matter, leaving readers feeling still hungry after eating a full-course meal. In a nutshell, the most apt description I’ve read about the book is a blurb from Kirkus Reviews that calls it “The Big Chill transplanted to the German countryside in the wake of 9/11 terrorism.”

Cardboard Characters

The premise of The Weekend is simply this: after a terrorist is released from prison some 20 years after being convicted of murdering innocent civilians as part of his war on the bourgeoisie, about a dozen of his fellow comrades and offspring – many of whom have moved on to comfortable lives in the same middle-class that the group had been fighting – meet at a countryside cottage to roast this terrorist’s freedom. And that’s essentially all that Schlink has to offer: a chamber novel whose only source of true pleasure is reading a sort of parlor shell game where we find out whom betrayed whom all those years ago, and deciding whether or not our terrorist antagonist/protagonist has truly abandoned his ways or not.

The most disappointing aspect of The Weekend is that its central character, Jörg, the pardoned terrorist, is something of a shell in and of himself. He is beyond an enigmatic figure; he is someone who doesn’t have any sense of self left after all of those years stuck behind bars. When he tries to speak to the group about how he feels about his criminal past, he usually lets other people do the talking for him, including a young character named Marko, who wants to see Jörg reclaim his identity and take up the old struggle once again. (Which leads me to wonder: who invited Marko to the party, and once his intensions were made clear, why didn’t anyone turf him from the summer home, considering that most of the cast who had assembled had clearly moved on from their past deeds?) However, this problem extends beyond its main character and into the supporting crew of hangers-on and followers. At about an even dozen characters or so, we don’t get a sense of anyone’s true individuality.

Indeed, the people who populate The Weekend feel cardboard and one-dimensional, and we don’t have any reason to be sympathetic towards the whole lot of them. Plus, for a novel that is ostensibly about the terrors of terrorism, great swaths of the plot involve those who are gathered trying to have sex with one another. To that end, I’m not sure what Schlink was trying to write here: a serious, probing examination of the use of violence for political means, or a sex farce. I just don’t get the marrying of the two, or how they link to one another, unless Schlink was trying (and failing) to explore the idea of the romanticism of being a terrorist.

That is not to say that The Weekend is wholly without merit. There are some interesting passages in which Schlink probes at the very nature of whether it is possible or not for a terrorist to be effectively reintegrated into society years after committing their abominable deeds. “How does a terrorist’s life end if it isn’t stopped by police and court and prison?” writes Schlink. “In retirement? With an American passport and a Swiss bank account? In a house in the country? Traveling, in a hotel? With a woman? Alone?” However, there are no easy answers to such questions, and Schlink doesn’t even bother to try to grapple with them.

By the novel’s end, we are treated to a scene where all of the major characters work together to bail out the cottage’s basement, which has been flooded in a rainstorm, which suggests that Schlink thinks that everyone must work together in rehabilitating a terrorist. This may be true, but at the same time, it really just seems like a pat answer. Surely, there are some who must feel that terrorists should be simply thrown in jail under lock and key to live out their lives in solitary confinement, or, worse, given the ultimate punishment of all: the death penalty. Schlink doesn’t consider that notion or even probe at it. To him, it seems as though we must forgive and possibly forget in the efforts to bring some nature of peace and reconciliation to society. And yet, how can anyone be anything but sure that once a terrorist, always a terrorist? How can one be so sure that someone would rejoin the very society and state that he or she was once fighting against?

I suppose that’s what makes The Weekend such an unsatisfying read: we know what the questions are, but Schlink himself doesn’t seem too convinced about the answers. The Weekend wants to say something about the moral and philosophical issues connected with terrorism, but isn’t quite sure exactly what it wants to say. The novel, effectively, works best if you turn off your brain and simply try to enjoy the various treacheries of the characters and whether or not they still have sympathies to their past resistance. That seems unfortunate, however, given the scope, impact and magnitude of 9/11 on modern society, and, surely, something more can be said about the loyalties of people who worked so hard to work against the real or perceived grievances of the state.

Overall, The Weekend is a flimsy book, a short novel that bites off more than it can chew in examining some very weighty issues that confront us as we move forward into the 21st century. If you’re like me, and believe that the Great 9/11 Novel maybe can’t be written until ardently angry and bitter Americans collectively and truly get over that horrible event and all of its baggage, The Weekend won’t sway you, but it may leave you feeling that you would have been better off to take a pass on this 72-hour gathering of cohorts in the country.

RATING 3 / 10