The Reader by Bernhard Schlink,translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
The Reader is a brief tale about sex, love, reading, and shame in postwar Germany. Michael Berg is 15 when he begins a long, obsessive affair with Hanna, an enigmatic older woman. He never learns very much about her, and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again. But, to his horror, he does. Hanna is a defendant in a trial related to Germany’s Nazi past, and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. As Michael follows the trial, he struggles with an overwhelming question: What should his generation do with its knowledge of the Holocaust?
I’m still not sure how I feel about this book. I wasn’t emotionally connected to either of the characters, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop reading it. Michael and Hanna’s relationship is complex and fascinating in its way. Guilt, love, shame, anger, and obsession are all innertwined. Michael is both drawn to Hanna and pushed away by her, both during their affair and later, during and after the trial. Michael, as the narrator, lets us see how she affects him, but I wanted to feel it, not just understand it, if that makes sense.
I think it brings up a lot of interesting topics- guilt, love, moral responsibility, the aftermath of the Holocaust- but allows the reader to come to his/her own opinions on them. I think that by leaving us not connected to the characters, the book allows us to think more clearly about the topics it raises, but whether that was Schlink’s purpose or not, I have no idea. This is one of those books that I will continue to think about over the next few days and weeks, appreciating it more as I mull over it.
I have not seen the movie based on the book and probably won’t. It’s just not a movie I can see my husband sitting through.