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A tense, two-day journey into Germany’s radical past

Friends gather at a country house to welcome back Jörg, released after 24 years in prison. He was part of a band of German radicals who in the 1970s organized robberies and the assassination of several prominent businessmen and other public figures.

In “The Weekend,’’ Bernhard Schlink has produced another terse and coolly voiced fictional examination of his country’s modern history: as much biopsy as novel. (Shaun Whiteside’s translation lucidly captures the chill.) For two days and two nights, the house party probes and argues its past and present. All had been in some measure involved in radical activism, though stopping short of Jörg’s bloody clandestinity. All have found their way back into society, variously as a journalist, a prosperous businessman, a bishop, a teacher, a lawyer. All but Jörg, whose long incarceration had isolated him and kept him from change other than his decision eventually to apply for the pardon now granted him.

The gathering is organized by Jörg’s sister, Christiane, who shares the place with Margarete, briefly her lover and now simply a close friend. For Christiane, Jörg has been a lifelong project; her protective devotion is the center of her existence, putting an end to an affair years before with the journalist Henner, one of the guests. Her concern, backed up by Andreas, the lawyer, is to ensure that Jörg takes up a peaceful life and avoids any move back into radical action.

Their challenger is Marko, who arrives late at the reunion and who, an extremist still, tries to persuade Jörg to resume the activist cause. He is the underground’s hero, Marko insists, and to give it up would betray everything he has stood for. Jörg, in bad health and in other ways a broken man, wavers. His wavering is the focus of the shifting arguments of “The Weekend,’’ a book more about ideas than about character or action.

Karin, the bishop, talks blandly of peace and freedom. Andreas, who pressed the case for clemency and is Christiane’s ally in seeking a normal life for Jörg, all but comes to blows with Marko, who is toying with an alliance between the radicals and Al Qaeda. Ulrich, who has done well manufacturing dental appliances, fires off a series of no-nonsense questions to breach the tactful reticence shown to Jörg by most of the others. What was prison like? Noisy. What was it like to murder people? A war action. What was the worst? “That life is elsewhere,’’ Jörg replies with suddenly moving candor. “That you’re cut off from it and rotting, and the longer you wait for afterward the less afterward is worth.’’

There are a couple of half-hearted side stories. Henner, uncertain of who he is despite his journalistic success, finds love and confidence with Margarete, an earth-mother figure whose calm solidity is a contrast to the febrile arguing around her. Ilse, the teacher, who spends most of her energy working on her novel about a terrorist, finds herself unable to come up with anything better than a hackneyed ending. Schlink has more than a little fun in writing about someone writing about terrorists while he is writing about terrorists (and also, in implying how hard it is to do.)

What Schlink is mostly interested in, and what he does best here, is exploring his nation’s character. The house party’s arguments are intensified with the arrival of Jörg’s estranged son, Ferdinand. He denounces the justifications for violence given by his father’s radical generation as just as atrocious as those of the Nazis. More telling is the comment of Eberhard, Karin’s husband, when Jörg, beleaguered, repeats the old arguments; namely that the violent impositions of Western capitalism had required violent resisting.

However true that may have been, says Eberhard, a philosophy professor, it was a truth of its time. “Even though they haven’t been contradicted, the subjects, problems and theses of another era are simply finished. They sound wrong; anyone who represents them isolates himself, anyone who represents them passionately looks ridiculous. When I started my studies, all that counted was existentialism, at the end of my studies everyone was keen on analytic philosophy, and twenty years ago Kant and Hegel came back. The problems of existentialism hadn’t been solved, nor had those of analytic philosophy. People were simply fed up with them.’’

We grow old, is Schlink’s chilly judgment on his country’s historical absolutisms. So do our truths.

Richard Eder can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.  

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