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Bernhard Schlink. Liebesfluchten. Zurich. Diogenes. 2000. 308 pages. DM 39.90. ISBN 3-257-06230-3.

AFTER ESTABLISHING HIMSELF as a prize-winning author of popular crime novels, Bernhard Schlink published the best-selling novel Der Vorleser (1995; see WLT 70:4, p. 951), which in the eyes of many elevated him to a higher level of literary achievement. His latest book, a collection of stories about love, indicates that Schlink will continue to set higher literary goals for himself, but without giving up the elements that made his previous writings commercially viable: the twisting plots and surprise endings of the crime genre and the undemanding, straightforward style that makes him such an easy read.

As the book's title announces, these stories concern the "flights of love." Whether drawn by love's magnetic pull or fleeing its stifling clutches, the characters in these very credible and very conventional narratives are caught in the tangles of Eros, but also ensnared by the complexities of their social and historical situations. Organized around the amatory predicaments of everyday people, these stories treat themes that could easily devolve into kitsch. But, as he had done in Der Vorleser, Schlink avoids this tendency by placing his characters not only in interpersonal relationships, but also in relation to social reality and the political past.

The first story, "Das Madchen mit der Eidechse," features a young law student who becomes an amateur detective to track down the identity and origin of a painting he inherits from his father, an alcoholic judge. As a boy, the law student had adored the painting (portraying a girl and a lizard), and after his father's death, it is the only vestige of his troubled family life that he cares to preserve. But the painting has a dark power that begins to influence the son's life, especially his relationships with women, who sense that at some important level they cannot compete with the girl in the painting. The desire to know more about the painting and its significance for his father results in unexpected revelations. It turns out that the father had acquired the artwork by dubious means during the Nazi period. In pursuing and uncovering this knowledge, however, the son arrives at a better understanding and acceptance of his parents, despite their emotional shortcomings, and finally at a clearer understanding of himself.

The second story, "Der Seitensprung," is the paradoxical tale of a betrayal committed to save a marriage. Sven and Paula are a happily married East German couple, whom the narrator meets and befriends in Berlin during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The narrator is a Sozialrichter in West Germany, which makes him interesting to the East German Stasi agents who are pressuring Sven to spy for them in order to compensate for the transgressions of his politically subversive wife. After the Wende, Sven and Paula are able to improve their social and economic standing, but when it comes out that Sven has subsidized their success by providing intelligence reports on his wife and friends to the Stasi, Paula vents her anger in a one-night stand with the surprised but willing narrator. Although this story offers some interesting views of the Wendezeit, providing a window onto the stressful lives of GDR folks involved in the process of political change, its literary qualities are not as strong as those of the preceding tale.

"Der Andere" concerns an elderly widower who must come to grips with his discovery of the secret extramarital activities of his recently deceased wife, and as the story of coming to terms with a repressed past that threatens to spoil the pleasure of living in the present, this tale may have allegorical resonance for contemporary Germans, whose capacity for mourning is still a relevant social issue. "Zuckererbsen" returns to some of the basic and more artful elements of Schlink's crime fiction in a story of a man who has it all -- a solid, lucrative profession as architect and bridge builder, but also enough artistic talent to allow him to realize his fantasy of becoming a painter -- only to realize ultimately that he is a natural con man with little conscience and almost no sense of commitment. This is ultimately a story of comeuppance, and Thomas gets his, but in an unexpected and delightfully humorous way.

"Die Beschneidung" continues the author's exercise in political allegory, as well as his thematic focus on coming to terms with the Nazi past and its burden of guilt and shame. The final two stories share what one might loosely call an existential aspect: both concern themselves with extreme situations in which a cruel truth imposes its emotional force on an unwilling human mind. Their central achievement is that they manage to recruit the reader as an empathic witness to their existential scenarios, keeping us poised, imaginatively, on the sharp edge between life and death that lacerates the fictional characters and confronts us with the painful consequences of our all-too-human actions or inactions in the real world, beyond the safe pages of well-formed prose.

If it is Schlink's intention to make the writerly leap from his previous crime fiction, which is so obviously a fictional construct (and thus at best entertainment) to a realistic fiction that strives to become enduring art, it would appear that, for now, he has achieved his goal. Time and further writings will show whether he can sustain this achievement.
Jeffrey Adams
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
COPYRIGHT 2001 University of Oklahoma
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Adams, Jeff
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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