(Phoenix, 2010); pbk £8.99
Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader met with much critical acclaim when it was published in his native Germany in 1995. Since then, it has won literary awards in Germany and France, been translated into thirty nine languages, and adapted for the big screen. The Reader also finds itself a staple on high school reading lists in Germany and beyond. So what’s all the fuss about? What message does this novel convey which keeps it in the public eye?
The story unfolds against the bleak landscape of post-war Germany and is told from the point of view of Michael as he explores his relationship with the thirty-something Hanna; it examines the intense and complex reverberations from that relationship which continue to affect him in adult life. In the first part, we see fifteen year old Michael willingly seduced by the older woman as they enter into a daily ritual of bathing, sex, and reading classical literature. However, from the onset it is clear that this is no love story – more a case of teenage infatuation masquerading as love, and an adult’s manipulation of her admirer’s innocent desire. There is little warmth in their coupling, and Hanna is at times prone to acts of physical and verbal violence towards Michael. A few months after beginning the affair, Hanna inexplicably disappears, leaving Michael with a sense of guilt and shame which taints all his future relationships with women. Seven years after her disappearance, Michael finds himself again in the company of Hanna, but this time as a law student spectating at her trial for war crimes. As he watches her refuse to defend herself against the claims, Michael realises that Hanna is hiding a secret she considers to be even more shameful than the atrocities she is accused of – she is illiterate; and she is willing to receive a heavier sentence rather than reveal her illiteracy to the court.
The Reader is, without question, a beautiful and disturbing novel. Schlink’s storytelling is both arresting and elegant. His sparse tone, frugal language and frankness of expression works well, especially in conveying the simplistic black-and-white mind of the teenage Michael and in simplifying the philosophical and moral musings of his adult self. However, there is so much more to this novel than a writer showcasing his literary talents. Ultimately, like many other works from post-1945 German literature, The Reader is a parable which explores the difficulties of comprehending the Holocaust. Michael represents the ‘those who came after’ generation who have been left to pick up the tattered pieces of their nation’s reputation destroyed by the actions of their forebears. As Michael states “The pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate.” Hanna’s illiteracy can be read as an allegory for the ignorance that allowed ordinary people to commit heinous crimes in the name of Nazism. When Hanna asks the judge at the end of the trial, “What would you have done?”, we feel Schlink is actually extending that question to his audience and challenging us to answer. Like Michael, we feel torn between a sense of duty to understand the hows and whys of such atrocities and the need to condemn them.: “I want to pose myself both tasks – understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.”
Although a wonderful read, The Reader is far from being enjoyable. The prevailing mood throughout the novel is one of pervading shame, and of profound guilt without atonement. It leaves its reader with the bitter aftertaste of by-proxy guilt – the shame of the spectator who cannot bring herself to fully condemn or understand the atrocious actions of her fellow human beings. Nevertheless, the issues explored in The Reader are all the more pertinent now that the survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust are dying and taking with them their living memories. Surely those memories areworth making a fuss about.