Has a woman who committed an atrocity in the service of the Third Reich any right to expect understanding from an old lover who hears of the crime's circumstances years later? And if we as readers come to see how a tragic flaw in her character led her to choose evil, can we permit ourselves to feel what was previously unthinkable: sympathy?
These and other questions raised by Bernhard Schlink's international bestseller "The Reader" served to undermine the emotional certainties of his narrator and the public alike. Some critics even called the novel "morally confused" because it dared to paint in shades of gray a tiny fictional corner of a historical landscape generally thought of in starkest black and white: the Holocaust.
In Schlink's mature and disturbing new collection of short fiction, "Flights of Love," he again brings his ambiguous storytelling gifts to the themes of psychic numbing, collective guilt and betrayal that have haunted his postwar generation in Germany. Facing turning points in their lives, their naivete smothered by the weight of experience and history, his characters know that whatever path they choose--whether to abandon a failing marriage or investigate Dad's hidden Nazi past--is certain to cause irreparable damage. Cornered by this knowledge and by their own conflicting emotions, they grope toward a resolution that will allow them to retain a measure of dignity and independence.
In the first and best of these stories, "Girl With Lizard," a young man discovers that a surrealist painting kept hidden in his childhood home is a lost work by a famous French artist who vanished during World War II. His mother tells him that his late father, a military judge under the Nazi regime, received it as a gift from Jews whom he'd helped. Maybe so. But as the young man researches its origins, he comes to learn of other more sinister ways in which his father may have come to be its owner. That one last, tantalizing secret lies underneath the colorful figures of "Girl With Lizard" seems only fitting in a tale in which the truth is uncovered by the young man layer after layer, with a mixture of pained reticence and urgency.
Schlink's pared-down style in this story and throughout the collection--his infrequent use of dialogue and metaphor--plays well against the tangled emotions that invariably threaten to undo his characters, heightening them by contrast. He avoids technical fireworks and raised voices and instead seeks to produce a steady level of low tension, one which he can maintain for more than 30 or 40 pages. Giving us that evil urge to peek ahead at the ending--just to get some relief--seems to be at times what he's really after.
When Schlink fails to get us on edge or captivate us, as happens in two of the tales, "The Other Man" and "Sugar Peas," it's generally out of an inability to generate the atmosphere of mystery and conflict needed to support so measured a pace. In those two stories, his writing becomes labored and didactic. And his tendency to offer guidelines to the reader with paragraphs made of rhetorical questions seems to betray his intuition that he's being less than successful.
Happily, four of the other deftly translated stories that follow "Girl With Lizard" reveal Schlink at his troubling best. In "The Woman at the Gas Station," a man plagued in his youth by a recurrent dream embarks on a vacation with his wife to celebrate the blossoming of their once-failing marriage. While driving down the Oregon coast, they come upon a gas station seemingly condensed out of his long-neglected dream. He must choose whether to fight to remain "awake"--to stay with his wife and continue their journey together--or to let himself be led where this confluence of inner and outer reality will take him.
"A Little Fling" follows a loose-knit love triangle in which motivations become twisted into perverse shapes by an East German regime that plays on personal failings to encourage betrayal. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a judge from the West befriends a couple from the East, Paula and Sven. After ending a brief affair with Paula, the man learns that Sven has supplied information about him to the secret police--not out of revenge, however, but for a secret reason. Schlink cleverly shifts our sympathies among the three until, like them, we begin to sense that establishing who is right and who is wrong is, for the moment, irrelevant--or maybe only a matter of perspective. The only question worth asking is: Where do we go from here?
In "The Son," a German professor is sent to a nameless war-torn country as a neutral observer of peace negotiations. With his safety at risk, he begins to regret his failures to go to his son's defense at key moments in the boy's childhood. When things go badly wrong with his mission, Schlink's riveting prose brings the tale to a shattering close. Can love persist where collective accusations play on collective guilt?
In "The Circumcision," a law student from Heidelberg living in New York falls for a young Jewish woman whose family is against "mixed" marriages. She soon begins to fiercely criticize his moments of "German-ness," as when he talks of his country's past as too complicated for easy analysis. The title points toward a possible solution to their dilemma, but expect a surprise ending. Indeed, Schlink's writing nearly always reminds us that what lies hidden underneath personal and national histories has the power to subvert our best intentions and push us along paths previously unimagined.