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[Book Review] Bernhard Schlink's The Reader

Night Owl Score - 5/5 Hoots

Written by Bernhard Schlink (and translated to English by Carol Janeway), The Reader is a beautiful coming-of-age story of Michael Berg and his romantic attachment to a woman 21 years older than him, Hanna Schmitz. Under this broader concept, the piece navigates the space of a generational divide and the struggle to accommodate the dilemmas that come with it, in the context of a post-war Germany. The story cruises through a range of themes set in the land that was once a different country.

The first of the book’s three-part journey spans the origin of the protagonists’ relationship; it narrates the story of them coming together in the most brilliantly rustic of ways and lays a foundation for the readers’ understanding of how their proximity shaped the course of both their lives. Despite being together physically, both of them have a very different set of lived experiences and each is seen struggling between living in their own world and in the world that they share with each other. This struggle lays quiet when, after making love, they lie together as Berg reads out to Hanna. It is refreshing, reading about how a 36-year-old woman listens, attentively, to stories being read by a teenager from his school books, and how personal this activity is to them. This segment of the story is narrated from the viewpoint of a teenager, affording an honest view into eroticism and how it consumed Michael’s formative years while introducing the nature of his relationship with Hanna, who ultimately leaves town, and Michael’s life, unannounced. The writing is eloquent and simple, truthful, and enticing.

Years pass, Michael graduates school and pursues the study of law concerned with crimes committed during the Holocaust. This segment of the novel, wry and succinct in tone, presents a maturation of the characters’ arcs. Berg, as a part of his course, attends a trial of war criminals and discovers Hanna sitting in the row of defendants. And so their paths cross again: Hanna is on trial for the crimes she committed as a former SS (military wing of the Nazi party) guard, a part of her life unbeknownst to Berg. She stands tall and proud, as he remembered her from years ago, even as her very character is put on trial. As the plot unravels, the readers and Berg discover that Hanna is illiterate. This is unknown to the court and is used by the other women on trial, as a tool to make Hanna the scapegoat because everyone realized she wouldn’t accept the fact that she was illiterate, she was too proud to do that. And so, the riddles that Berg had pondered over for years start untying themselves. The trial comes to an end with Hanna being sentenced to life in prison as she chooses exposure as a criminal over exposure as an illiterate. As Michael says, “It was a pitiful justice. But it was her justice.”

Here on through the end, the text forces the readers to ask a range of questions: is the law the right vehicle of justice for actions performed rightfully under a previous law? Is such a verdict valid? If Hanna wasn’t able to defend herself ably and was made the scapegoat by the other accused former-guards, was the judgment really ‘fair’? Should Berg have tried to help Hanna, even though he knew it’d be a slight to her pride? Does anyone have the right to try and undo what someone else chooses for themselves, even if it is prima facie bad for them? Benumbingly thought-provoking questions of what is good and ethical are raised as the narration proceeds; Berg struggles to reconcile what he feels for Hanna, the woman he once loved, and Hanna, the Nazi.

“How could it be a comfort that the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate, and that it was only more difficult for me to evade, more difficult for me to manage, than others?” Michael asks himself. This is the essence of the novel; a compelling meditation on the linkages between Germany’s past and present, the lives of a generation whose parents had shared the crime – they weren’t direct aggressors but had played a significant role in the massacres by declining to oppose the Nazi evil, even if it was out of fear for their own lives. As such, The Reader isn’t so much a book about the Holocaust, as it is the story of a generation coming to terms with the reality of their being, and reconciling with the actions of those whom they love. As Michael grows into this knowledge, he and Hanna both discover that they can’t live as partners, as lovers. The last leg of their journey comes to an end as a wizened Hanna hangs herself the dawn of the day that she was to be released from prison. This was her second, and ultimate, rebellion in the face of life trying to bend her to its will.

Beautifully real in its narration, the novel is but one of a kind. In contrast to much of the literature birthed in a post-war setting, it focuses on the now; the Now as a consequence of what has already happened. The book makes one pause, re-read, absorb, think, question, and continue reading. One feels oneself as part of the story right from the beginning, which is a remark on the author and the translator’s efforts. In the broader setting of the question of ‘the German Fate’, it deals with the erotic and the philosophical impartially, and even mutually; a brazen account of a love that wasn’t meant to be. The text is a must-read for all; whether you are looking for something to read late into the chilly December mornings, or to gain insight into how one might equip oneself to better handle the questions of the self in a world that is growing noisier by the day. This book is our go-to for this contemplative season.

Interested? You may find the book here.

A Night Owl original, this piece has been authored by Pallavi Singh.



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