The Reader tells the story of the teenage years of Michael Berg while recovering from hepatitis and his passionate affair with a mysterious woman twice his age. Later going on to study law and discovering that this woman was involved in the death march from Auschwitz. The book continues on through the war crimes trial and the relationship between the two after her imprisonment.
Bernhard Schlink was born in 1944 (one year before the war ending), studied law then became a professor of public law and the philosophy of law. His passion for reading comes from a teacher in his high school who encouraged his reading and discovery of literature. Later he discovers that this teacher was a member of the Gestapo and involved in some questionable practices. His first series of books featuring a sixty year old private investigator Gerhard Selb (Selb translates to Self) also had a questionable past during the war and his coming to terms with this. This is interesting since the books in the series are called; Self’s Punishment, Self’s Deception and Self’s Murder. Also he has a collection of essays called Vergangenheitsschuld which translates to Guilt about the Past, which leads you to believe that Bernhard Schlink has a fascination about the effect of World War II has on the next generation of Germans.
This is not a book about the Holocaust novel; while this historical event plays a role, this is rather a novel that gives you a lot of questions and problems to think through. Divided into three parts; the summer of love, the trial and imprisonment; The Reader explores three different scenarios as well as the notion of keeping secrets. At the start of the book Hannah comes across as Good Samaritan trying to help Michael who was throwing up in the street. Later he pursues her and she gets an impression that he is old enough to be out of school; he doesn’t correct her, thinking the papers he leaves behind was enough for her to know his true age but we later finds out she would never have looked at them. When she finds out, they are in bed together and he tells her that he is skipping classes to be with her. She throws him out and it’s not until very later in the book we discover just how important education is to her. Hannah is his first love, he is too young to fully understand the kind of relationship they are having, while Hannah remains guarded and tries to protect both her public and private shames.
While most people focus mostly on the relationship between the two, but there is so much more to look at in the novel. Years later Michael finds Hannah again in a trial and the reader is asked to consider two things; the nature of her guilt and the significance of her other secret (the one she is more ashamed of it). While she was never the ringleader of her charges and she was following orders, when it came to the damning report, she let the court believe she wrote it to continue to hide her illiteracy. This brings to the overall concept to the book; ignorance is not necessarily innocence. The pride to protect herself from people discovering of her illiteracy works against her though out the entire book. She gives up promotions and lands herself in prison all to protect this secret.
This leads into the third part; years later we find that Michael starts reading to Hannah once again. Sending cassettes both the reader and Hannah mistakenly get the impression that this is an act of affection and when Hannah eventually finds out, we also find out just how cold he has been acting. I’m not sure if he was trying to gain back the power in their relationship or just the bitterness of his life doing it but we are led to believe he still cares about Hannah when all he really cares about is that summer fling when he was still a teenager.
The book wants you to recognise that you are the reader, and Hannah, in particular, wants you to realise just how blessed you are to be able to read this book. I remember there was a great movie adaptation of this book a while ago; while very meta to have a movie about reading, I’m surprised how well it came together. I didn’t remember much about this movie while I read this but it all come back to me as I discovered it in the book. It was a great feeling to remember as I read and not know what would happen next.
I really loved this book; there is that element of uncomfortableness with the relationship at the start, which really is something people can be afraid to talk about but with a book like this it can be scandalous. There are also so many other interesting elements that I think are equally valuable; especially with the whole German shame towards what they did in World War II and the next generation having to deal with it. While the movie closely follows the book, it is still worth reading; I highly recommend it.