30 May 2019

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink's book centers around so many fascinating concepts and ideas that I wish it was a thousand pages longer. His careers have ranged from law professor to judge to acclaimed author. I had watched the movie long before I picked up a used copy of the book but it didn't matter at all. Read it or watch it, The Reader is a beautiful piece of work and it will burrow into your brain.

Bernhard Schlink's The Reader is a quick read at 224 pages but it covers a lot of ground. It's the story of Michael Berg, a young German boy growing up post World War Two, and a mysterious older woman named Hanna that he begins a relationship with. The book is divided into three parts:

The first is when Michael is fifteen and he first meets Hanna. They start a sexual relationship and he becomes more and more infatuated with her but notices weird elements of her personality - including her temper and controlling attitude. One day Hanna essentially disappears and Michael doesn't see her for many years. The second part of the book is when he is college-aged and is studying law. His law class is sitting in on Holocaust trials and Michael is shocked to see Hanna being tried in court for being involved in the SS and letting a group of Jewish women die in a fire while under her care.

Michael starts to piece together Hanna's bizarre behaviour and her unwillingness to submit a handwriting sample that could save her from a life sentence. He uncovers that Hanna is illiterate and has spent most of her life hiding this from people.  The last section of this book deals with Michael as an adult and his time sending Hanna voice recordings of him reading her favourite books and sending them to her in prison.

Sometimes the memory of happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?"

Bernhard Schlink
With the plot out of the way let's get into my favourite aspects of this book. The first is how post-war Germans dealt with the horrors and atrocities committed by the generation above them - sometimes including their own family members. Germany is such an interesting country because so much of their current-day culture and politics involves a heavy scrutiny of their past. 

Schlink deals with the direct aftermath of World War Two and the generation that came afterwards. Michael talks about the guilt and shame he and his friends felt, and their disgust with their parents for "standing by."

What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt."

After doing some googling I found there is a very long German word for this type of thematic literature and I feel like I'll do some digging to see what else is good and what I should pick up.

The other stuff I found so fascinating was on illiteracy. Once it's revealed that Hanna is illiterate you start to understand a lot of her strange behaviour. How she was constantly afraid of being found out and that mundane tasks like going to a new restaurant could be a massive source of anxiety.

Hanna's illiteracy is heartbreaking but then you also remember that she is on trial for a war crime. So much of this book is dedicated to Michael's struggle with his emotions for Hanna ... reckoning what she was apart of and the crimes she committed. When he learns that Hanna would have sick Jewish women read to her he wonders if she did this to give them comfort in their last days or if she herself sent them to the gas chamber so no one would learn of her illiteracy. It's a chilling discovery and you struggle along with Michael to determine whether Hanna deserves our sympathy.

It wasn't that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It's there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?"

A scene from The Reader which won Kate Winslet an Oscar
This book isn't just full of interesting moral dilemmas, it's also so beautifully written. There are so many passages in this book that I found to be deeply moving. I remember being particularly taken with this one:

When an airplane's engines fail, it is not the end of the flight. Airplanes don't fall out of the sky like stones. They glide on, the enormous multi-engined passenger jets, for thirty, forty-five minutes, only to smash themselves up when they attempt a landing. The passengers don't notice a thing [...] At some point, the earth or sea look dangerously close through the window. But perhaps the movie is on, and the stewards and air hostesses have closed the shades. Maybe the very quietness of the flight is appealing to the passengers."

I honestly can't say if the book or the movie was better. Both are moving and different in their own ways. It's kind of a silly argument to begin with. Better yet, enjoy both. Performances by Kate Winslet and all the variations of Michael (with the last being Ralph Fiennes) were amazing and she deserved (and won!) the Academy Award.

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