I finished The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, and it has stayed with me as I’ve turned the story over and over in my mind and tried to pin down just one response to it. So far, I’ve been unsuccessful; I cannot decide on a way to feel about this book, just in the same way that Michael cannot reconcile his emotions about Hanna within the novel.
Set in Germany and told in three separate parts, all from Michael’s perspective, the novel chronicles the relationship of Michael and Hanna, which begins when he is 15 and she 36. They begin an affair which involves, as these things usually do, a lot of sex, bathing, and him reading books aloud to her. He is smitten but awkward, and she is insecure but dominating, which results in a lopsided relationship with flickers of abuse. The affair ends abruptly with Hanna moving without telling Michael; he in turn assumes he must have been responsible. In part two, Michael is in law school and assigned to attend a trial for a class. As it turns out, Hanna is one of the guards being prosecuted for her actions as a guard at Auschwitz prior to their relationship. He also realizes Hanna’s primary secret, but chooses to do nothing. In part three, we learn Michael has been unable to move on from Hanna and sends her tapes of him reading books to her while she is in prison.
The thing about this book is that it’s told very simply, but the symbolism is nearly overwhelming: the younger generation of Germans cannot forgive the older generation of Germans who participated in the Holocaust, yet neither can they completely condemn their elders. This tension is never resolved, not even between Michael and Hanna, because how can it be? How can you forgive someone for crimes they didn’t commit against you? And how can such atrocious deeds ever be forgiven? However, the symbolism is so much so that it is hard to even talk about Michael and Hanna as individual characters, outside of what they represent.
Interestingly, some of the best insight into the story has come from the film. David Hare, the screenwriter for the movie, talks about how the challenges of translating this book into film here. Ebert identifies the story as much more about the secrets we all have that we’re ashamed of and would go to great lengths to hide, and a look at the news or PostSecret tells me this is quite accurate. After all, I’ve got four or five secrets right now, and not all of them relate to the stash of Girl Scout cookies in my freezer.
I offer no real conclusions other than the book was excellent, I would recommend it, and the academic papers you could write on it are numerous. All I know for certain is that Kate Winslet is amazing, and now that I know the story, I’ll probably have to watch the film to see how the director chose to portray her as Hanna, who is infinitely more fascinating than Michael. He’s really only the lens through which the story is told. But then, maybe we’re all lenses through which history will be seen.