I saw the movie version of Schlink’s novel on accident; “Frost/Nixon” wasn’t playing at the local theater so my friend randomly selected “The Reader” from the list. Because I liked the movie so much, I placed myself on the wait list at the library for the novel.
When fifteen-year-old Michael Berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a hideous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
On the one hand, Schlink’s novel is uncomfortable to read. Michael is fifteen when he begins his relationship with Hanna, a woman we would label as a pedophile today. The beginning of the book is packed with awkward moments because a reader of today would consider their relationship so very wrong. And, yet, Schlink writes it so you can still see the beauty in it. It’s all very confusing.
The writing is very distant and reserved, which reflects Michael and Hanna’s relationship. The two share very little with one another. For example, it takes them several weeks to disclose their names to one another.
The real heart of this book, though, is the exploration of guilt by association.
“I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was not room for understand. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this.” (pg. 157)
Hanna follows orders as a Nazi guard, and, therefore, must suffer the punishment? Not a statement, but a question. A man spends his entire life loving a “criminal”, and wonders if he’s a criminal by association, which the entirety of Germany faced post-Word War II.
“How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them — how could they have anything to say to their children? But on the other hand, the Nazi past was an issue even for children who couldn’t accuse their parents of anything, or didn’t want to. For them, coming to grips with the Nazi past was not merely the form taken by a generational conflict, it was the issue itself?” (pg. 169)
This is really what made The Reader for me. The story raises far more questions than provides answers and gives a poignant exploration of guilt in post-Nazi Germany.
- Schlink, Bernhard. The Reader. Translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Vintage, 2008. Originally published 1995. Print. 218 pgs. ISBN: 0307454894. Source: Library.