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Book review: <i>The Reader</i> by Bernhard Schlink

the cover of the book

In a generation struggling to come to grips with what the generation before them has done, The Reader is the story of love, betrayal, war, and reading aloud.

The story

When fifteen year old Michael Berg is struck down by hepatitis, he is helped home by Frau Schmitz, a stranger from a nearby neighbourhood. When he recovers, he visits her with flowers to thank her for assisting him.

He is fascinated by her, and on their third encounter, Michael and Hanna, who is more than twice his age, begin having an affair. Michael is swept up by his infatuation with Hanna, but can’t help noticing certain oddities in her behaviour. She is very closed emotionally, has fits of temper, and also fits of insecurity. She also makes a point that she will no longer see him if he neglects his studies for her. There relationship becomes more connected when Michael begins to read to Hanna aloud, which becomes part of their daily ritual.

As their relationship continues, he becomes more involved in his school life and the social elements it provides. Hanna seems more like hard work, but when she unexpectedly leaves the city, Michael is devastated. No girl can properly be to him what Hanna was.

The next time Michael sees Hanna, he is a law student sitting in on the cases of six female Nazi guards, accused of a variety of atrocities. Hanna is one of them. Michael once again becomes obsessed by Hanna, the idea of what she did, and the inconsistencies of her testimony. What more is she hiding?

After the trial, Michael is still stuck on the idea of Hanna. He carries the burden of his knowledge about her through his life, until he eventually realises a way to continue having a relationship with Hanna, and try to put the past to rest.

The style

The Reader is a quick read, while at the same time being very emotionally engaging and involving. It is written in the first person from the point of view of Michael, and is incredibly well written. Points here should also go to the translator, Carol Brown Janeway. The emotions that fifteen year old Michael experience are varied, three dimensional, and capture the heart of his story. Hanna has the mystique of the older woman, but there is nothing tawdry or obscene in the relationship through the eyes of Michael. The sex and early relationship were extremely well written, as was the growing up of Michael. The pacing of the story, which ends up spanning a probably close to twenty five years, is perfectly done for such a small book.

Probably the most engaging and interesting part of The Reader for me is the way it deals with Nazis, the second world war, and the generation who came after the war—the baby boomers of Germany, if you will. While there is a plethora of literature written about the second world war looking at the Jews, and the Poles, and all the other outcasts, there isn’t much from the actual Germans. This could be the silence of shame that many Germans experience about their part in the war, or what they perceive to be the guilt of their parents and relatives. The post-war history of Germany is fascinating for this very reason, and this book reveals a tiny slither of the complexity of emotion and reasoning from a character who is passionate about the wrongs perpetrated by his country, while at the same time battling with his knowledge of one of the perpetrators.

This book is rich with such themes should the reader wish to delve into them; from the nature of the initial relationship between Michael and Hanna to the deeper ponderings about what the impact of the war was on the generations after the Nazis, and how their lives were affected. And because the writing is so beautiful and subtle, none of these issues are rammed down your throat and no judgement is called for. And it can be read in a day. What more could you ask?

Who is this book for?

People with an interest in the far reaching ramifications of war, particularly the second world war. Or just people who appreciate really well written, sensitive, and beautiful reading material. Either way. I’d recommend it to just about anyone.

If you like this book, you would also like...

When The Emperor Was Divine, which is the story of the ramifications of post second world war life on a Japanese family, Everything Is Illuminated, a unique glimpse into how the second world war affected aspects of Europe, and A Thread Of Grace, which is a look at the Italian resistance movement during the second world war. There is no shortage of tales about world war two out there, but each of the three I’ve mentioned have a slightly different take on them than your standard war literature.

In short

Title: The Reader
Author: Bernhard Schlink
Publisher: Vintage International
ISBN: 0679442790
Year published: 1997
Pages: 218
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, War
Review Type: 


Michael's instructor says that for reasons either "noble or perverse," people hide secrets out of which character is created. In the movie, however, Hanna's character is hard to define, except to conclude that Michael believes her to be both noble and perverse at the same time.

And, although he loves her in spite of this, her perverse side wins out because Michael refuses to go any further in helping her by revealing that, because she is illiterate, she could not have written the report.

To me, this reluctance to help on his part was not too believable
because of how much feeling he had for her.

The ending was rather sad and confusing as well, not only for Michael and Hanna, but also for the cause of human forgiveness.

I think you should not go by the movie .. rather read the book that gives insight into Michael's psyche ... how he is very much an emotionally closed creature ... probably connecting at that the level to Hanna ... how he tries to rationalize the behavior of his "first love" or "infatuation" .. however you want to term it and tries to absorb and win through the pain of the entire episode .... he is kind of the insider who is torn in a dilemma whether to help Hanna ... keeps on thinking the question ... "does she want me to help her ? " .... she is a very dignified creature in her own way and does not want to declare her illiteracy ... even if that comes at a cost of life imprisonment ...
Forgiveness ... like mercy is twice blessed isn't it .. and its the latter that counts ... whether you feel forgiven ... :)