[Published 2005 by Phoenix. First published in 1987]
There was a risk in picking up a book by Bernard Schlink after ‘The Reader.’ For over a decade, this book has remained one of my favourites and the only novel I have read by the author… until now. Perhaps I should have known that ‘Self’s Punishment’ wasn’t going to be another book that wedged itself firmly amongst my favourites, and yet there is something of ‘The Reader’ in it – like the smell of a sweet perfume that lingers in a room.
‘Self’s Punishment’ is a mystery story – it has the likable private detective with a shady past and a modern day crime to be solved. But there is something of the heart-thumping anxiety of a mystery that is missing and noticeably so in this novel. In many respects, this has been made up for in a story that snowballs upon itself and grows as you flip through the pages leading to an outcome you wouldn’t expect.
Hidden within the tale, the reader is forced to confront how many pro-Nazi Germans carried on their lives after World War II, dealt with guilt and a sudden change in ideology, and sought exoneration for any ills they may have committed as agents of an evil government. This starts as an undertone and builds into powerful food for thought as the story progresses.
It may not be one of my favourite books, albeit written by the man responsible for one of my all-time bests, but it caught my attention and filled my time for a while. In all of my ambivalence, I can’t help but recommend it.
Published 2008 by Verso
‘From A to X’ was one of the most unconventional narratives I have had the pleasure of reading.
As I started it, I couldn’t help thinking that these abandoned letters between a political prisoner and his lover could have been written by anyone in a country that has experienced oppression. As the novel goes on, however, I realised that this was not the case – these two are unique in a touching love story that is both moving and tragic.
The letters are full of politics that we can all relate to, profound sentiments, and desperation – to be together, whether in the past or the future. As the reader, you almost feel voyeuristic in following their correspondence (although I found it very hard to stop reading), and I found myself desperate to find out more about these people and what they had endured (and it was not to be).
If criticism is to be leveled, it is on a single point – I occasionally found the letters from A’ida somewhat unconvincing as coming from a woman, something I justified to myself in that she is no ordinary woman. Don’t let this put you off.
This place is as familiar to her now as a living room in the house of a life she never bargained for. 6
Why, Dr Livingstone, I presume, wasn’t he the rascal! He and all profiteers who’ve since walked out on Africa as a husband quits a wife, leaving her with her naked body curled around the emptied-out mine of her womb. 10
We would all have to escape Africa by a different route. Some of us are in the ground now and some are above it, but we’re all women, made of the same scarred earth. 101 -2
Pure and unblemished souls must taste very bland, with an aftertaste of bitterness. 154
The substance of grief is not imaginary. It’s as real as a rope or absence of air, and like both of these things it can kill. My body understands there was no safe place for me to be. 433
My little beast, my eyes, my favourite stolen egg. Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, we have only found sorrow. 438