AS A law student in 1960s Germany, Bernhard Schlink was taught by professors who served in the Third Reich. One, a Gestapo informer, awakened him to the beauty of English; another one-time collaborator introduced him to the philosophical richness of the law.
The conundrum of how to relate to parents and mentors who committed atrocities defined Schlink's generation of Germans born in the wake of Nazism. It was also the fulcrum of his bestselling 1995 novel The Reader - translated into 37 languages and, despite its lack of sentimentality, selected for Oprah's Book Club.
"The Reader is about how one enters someone's guilt by loving that person - and then the conflict between whether you just break with that person or try to understand them," says Schlink, 63, a law academic and recently retired constitutional judge, who splits his time between Berlin and New York.
The novel's narrator, Peter Debauer, is a legal scholar who was raised in postwar Germany believing his father was killed in the war. He becomes obsessed with discovering the author of a pulp novel he read as a child about a German soldier who returns home to find his wife with another man - in the exact locale of Peter's childhood.
Peter's quest leads him to New York, where he intends to confront a septuagenarian legal theorist, John de Baur, about his wartime activities. Schlink says the most common justification used by lawyers who participated in Nazism was that they were scrupulous professionals who followed the letter of the law. But some, like the fictional de Baur, created more intricate justifications.
De Baur reinvented himself as a founder of "deconstructionist" legal theory, whose book The Odyssey of Law argues that the law is merely an arbitrary system, with the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, in a state of constant flux.
"If one has to justify collaboration, it's a pretty smart approach," Schlink says .........................
Schlink is working on a screenplay for a German film of Homecoming, but he decided against writing the adaptation of The Reader - being made into a film by Stephen Daldry, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. "In the case of Homecoming, I thought the movie could not tell the story the way the novel does but only play with the novel in a new way to create something different. I found that interesting."
Schlink was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastically younger Germans responded to Homecoming. He sees the theme of collective guilt as being less pertinent to the generation of his 35-year-old son, Jan, a dentist. "The second generation, by embracing the parents, teachers, pastors and figures of authority became entangled into their guilt. The other option would have been to expel them and some of us tried very hard in the years following '68 to break with the parents' generation. But that's not easily done.
Homecoming (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, A$33 NZ$39) is out now.