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The first—and only—time that I read Homer’s “The Odyssey” was in my high school freshman English class. I hated it. I was alternately bored with the flush language, infuriated by Odysseus’s ego and infidelity, and frustrated by what I saw as Penelope’s pathetic loyalty. I kept on putting down “The Odyssey” to sneak a peek at the next book on the syllabus, which I thought to be far more satisfying: “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Luckily, my bad experience with “The Odyssey” hasn’t prejudiced me against all the novels with a Homerian essence. Before I was halfway through Bernhard Schlink’s “Homecoming,” I had decided that it was time to return to the original hero’s journey.
But what makes “Homecoming” such a compelling read is its contestation of the very idea of a Homerian journey. Must a hero’s journey end with a homecoming? Such broadly philosophical questions permeate the novel—at times to the point of oversaturation—but Schlink’s narrative is also touchingly sympathetic to the characters of this post-World War II odyssey.
The novel’s protagonist, Peter Debauer, grew up with his mother in Germany, spending summers at his paternal grandparents’ home in Switzerland. He knew his father through photographs and stories that his grandparents told him; his mother informed him only that his father had been shot during the War. As a child, he kept his grandparents company while they edited novels for anthologies. When Debauer begins reading a submission about a man who returns from the war to find that his wife has remarried only to discover that the end of the novel is missing, his curiosity is peaked.
After his grandparents’ death years later, Debauer sets off to resolve the mystery: what happened to the man in the story? As he searches across Germany, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union for the author, he also resumes an older search for his father’s identity. Unsurprisingly, he discovers that his father is not only alive and prospering as a prominent professor at Columbia University in New York, but also the novel’s author. Debauer sets off to New York to get some answers.
But the real surprise is that this predictable twist—that the author of the story and Debauer’s father are one and the same—doesn’t feel hokey. The old saying really does hold true here: the meaning lies not in the destination—or, in this case, the climax—but in the journey.
And the journey in “Homecoming” is unique. Schlink refutes the idea of a concrete ending. While he offers a few homecomings—exposing a falsehood, finding love, realizing what it really is that Debauer is looking for—there is ultimately a lack of closure.
Debauer never confronts his father and he still feels “a longing for the Odysseus” of his childhood. Moreover, the last chapter rings with uncertainty. Sure, Debauer has found love, but will it last? Didn’t the man in the novel come home to find that his wife had left him for another? Debauer’s desires continually change throughout the novel—might they not change again?
It’s not even truly clear which character is the hero and whose journey is the journey. Schlink skillfully layers odyssey upon odyssey. Most evidently, there is Debauer’s personal journey to find the two mystery men in his life. But there is also the story of his father, John de Baur, who attempted to create a new life by subterfuge. There is the story that John de Baur wrote, of the World War II soldier who returns home to an unfaithful wife. And there is the original Odyssey, which Schlink references throughout the novel.
Homer’s “Odyssey” is the original circular journey: the hero leaves home, has adventures, and returns. So what is the significance when the prototype of “The Odyssey” gets bent out of shape? What happens, Schlink asks, in an Odyssey where there is no homecoming at all?
The novel offers no answers. But these loose threads are what make “Homecoming” such a refreshing and interesting—albeit somewhat tedious—journey.
—Staff writer April B. Wang can be reached at email@example.com.
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