Schlink, B. (1998). The reader. New York: Vintage Books. 9780679781301
I spotted a copy of this slim book on the Friends of Freeman Library bookshelf. Moving quickly, I managed to buy it. Despite what I previously heard about the heavy topics, I rapidly finished this book.
Divided into three parts and told in the first person narrative form, Part I begins in West Germany in 1958 when fifteen year old Michael Berg becomes gravely ill on his way home from school. Thirty-six year old tram conductor Miss Schmitz sees him and plays the Good Samaritan by hosing down his shoes and guiding him down the road. Michael finds his way home, where he convalesces from hepatitis. His father, a philosophy professor, and his mother keep him from leaving home. When he’s well again, Mrs. Berg sends Michael with a bouquet to Miss Schmitz’s door to show his appreciation, discovering he’s drawn to her. Miss Schmitz catches him watching her dress and Michael runs from her place. However, Michael returns to Miss Schmitz’s apartment, helps her with lugging coal, and becomes covered with coal dust. Miss Schmitz insists Michael bathe and when he does, Miss Schmitz seduces him. A love affair ensues as Michael settles into a routine of visiting her apartment – bathing, having sex, and reading. Michael reads aloud to Miss Schmitz, who in turn, reveals her first name to be Hanna. So, Michael reads classics such as The Odyssey and War and Peace to his lover. During their affair, they don’t talk much about their lives and Hanna becomes morose and abusive at times. After a few months of this, Hanna disappears. Michael develops into a sullen heel himself.
In Part II, as a law student in 1965, Michael and his classmates observe a war crimes trial. Former female Schutzstaffel (SS) guards are on trial for the deaths of 300 Jewish prisoners. One of these guards just happens to be Hanna, Michael’s former lover. Even more perplexing is the fact that Hanna, unlike the other women on trial, refuses to defend what she did as an SS guard. Then, Michael understands that Hanna is hiding an even darker secret. Michael faces the dilemma of letting Hanna “hang herself” for the crime or to reveal what would set her free.
Part III holds the conclusion, taking place in the 1990s. Herein, Michael comes to terms with his relationship with Hanna and choices they’ve made. Without spoiling the book, all I’ll say is that he seeks absolution.
What an austere little book! The sparse prose and clipped tone of the work seemed in perfect accord with the Michael Berg’s thoughts. Also, The Reader delves into the psyche of a rich inner world and thought life – read cerebral. Another element worth noting, Michael’s rather miserly when it comes to labeling people. For example, he never offer names for his parents nor his siblings. Then, he doesn’t name the survivors who bring about Hanna’s trial. Simply, Michael bestows names upon few.
Schlink portrays the intimacy of the two German generations – the Nazi participants (willing/unwilling) and the post-War youth who desire to rectify their fore bearers’ mistakes. He shows precisely the grayness that contemporary analysts find polarizing. No matter how much Michael’s generation wants to wipe the slate clean, none of us should forget. Michael even recognizes how his own father, a philosopher who focuses on Kant and Hegel, inadvertently supported the Nazi cause by writing hiker’s guides. They are inseparable.
Another remarkable theme is ignorance versus knowledge. Enlightenment leads not just to better ways to make a living for oneself, it also opens the path to better decisions.
Then, there’s the intertextuality – the complex relationship between a text and other texts taken as basic to the creation or interpretation of the text (Merriam Webster 2011). Michael’s literary selection came from Enlightenment Era.
Lastly, there’s the prevailing theme of humanity. Part III sees to a purposefulness in Michael that Part II seems to lack. Here, the titular Reader becomes enlightened and compassionate.
Four Out of Five Pearls
Places : Germany, Poland, The United States
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
- The Graduate by Charles Webb
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguru
- Lima Nights by Marie Arana
- Night by Elie Wiesel
For more on Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, check out the following sites: