The Reader Writer Reads

Writers, philosophers, activists for social justice, Germans – Whitehorse has plenty. So it was no surprise we filled the Old Fire Hall on May 10 to hear German-born Bernhard Schlink, author of the renowned The Reader, introduce his new book, The Weekend.

The Weekend is a discussion among members of a defunct Red Army Faction cell who are reunited when one of their members, Jörg, is released from prison by proclamation.

To help ease him back into society, the group spends two days at a country house examining their actions and what meaning, if any, they place on the experience.

Schlink, whose first tour of Canada was sponsored by the Goethe Institute, is a jurist and judge in the German Constitutional Court.

Themes of truth, guilt and social justice found in both The Reader and The Weekend are hallmarks of his literature, the Gerhard Self crime novels, and his non-fiction writings on jurisprudence.

Although Schlink can’t put his finger on what sparks a story, “I read a newspaper or see an event that takes hold and then there’s a process where I play with the ideas, put things in, take things out, characters come to mind, and finally a story takes shape.”

But mysteries have always appealed to Schlink, who as a child did his homework on the reverse side of page proofs from his grandparents’ pulp fiction publishing company.

“Mysteries can help you take the step from scholarly writing to fiction,” he told Christina Patterson of The Independent. “In mysteries, as in scholarship, you write a problem and solve it.”

In an interview on, Schlink admits, “My mysteries are not entirely orthodox insofar as they don’t just tell the story of a crime, they also deal with recent German history.”

In Self’s Punishment (2005), Self’s Deception (2007) and Self’s Murder (2009) Gerhard Self, once a Nazi prosecutor, is a private investigator.

“The mystery novels were always meant to be a trilogy,” says Schlink. “The first one was about how the past of the Third Reich still reaches into our present time, the second one was about ’68 and the terrorism of the ’70s. And the third is about what came after reunification.”

Self, often compared to Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse or Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, is a virile, smoking, drinking P.I. in his 60s, written when Schlink was in his early 40s. “In a way, I now know how to be old,” he says.

As one reader commented, “It was refreshing to have a detective who should be retired and going on holiday wrestling with demons from his past as well as cavorting with younger women.”

Other characters in Schlink’s novels can be unusually brutal, unsympathetic, anti-social people who Schlink himself wouldn’t want to spend time with. But they are essential to show the ugliness that festers in an uncaring, unjust society.

“Sometimes a writer is like a kidnap victim with their characters,” he told Whitehorse readers.

“I liken it to a type of Stockholm Syndrome almost, where no matter how bad they are as a person, there’s a relationship, a respect, that develops.”

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