“Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at actual distance. I was afraid that the small, light, safe world of notes and cassettes were too artificial and too vulnerable to withstand actual closeness.” 
There are novels evocative of events that change the course of human history through layered narratives and an abundance of symbols, like Beloved. There are also those written in very simple language, so simple that because it leaves no room for analysis, the meaning thus overlooked. The Reader is such a novel, one that is meant for re-readings.
Germany in 1958. Fifteen year old Michael Berg has hepatitis that has confined him home for months. One day in late fall a woman more than twice his age rescues him when he falls ill on his way home. Hanna Frau Schmitz seizes his arm and pulls the lad through the dark entryway into her apartment, where she bathes him and feeds him. In time the thirty-six year old conductor becomes his lover. Their relationship is as intense as it is sudden. She enthralls him with her passion, with a seductiveness that has nothing to do with her voluptuous body, but her evasiveness of her past puzzles him. Their relationship nonetheless becomes more intimate as Michael takes up reading to Hanna.
After Hanna disappears suddenly one day, Michael has never overcome his grief and blames himself for her disappearance, which leaves a profound influence on his future relationship with women. He can never love anyone whom it would hurt to lose. When he sees her again it is in the courtroom seven years later. She is arraigned for a hideous crime at a satellite camp near Auschwitz that she cannt be completely responsible for. But that she is not willing to earn victory, or at least fortify her defense, at the price of exposure as an illiterate has ensnared her, crippled her. It pains Michael that Hanna, now at 43, opts for the horrible exposure as a criminal over the harmless exposure as an illiterate.
“She was not persuing her own interests, but fighting for her own truth, her own justice. Because she always had to dissimulate somewhat, and could never be completely candid, it was a painful truth and a pitiful justice, but it was hers, and the struggle for it was her struggle.” 
The writing style of The Reader is dual. The part of the story that delves into the Nazi past, amplified by the trial of the six female guards who were indirectly responsible for the death of hundreds of female prisoners, who were burned ablaze in a locked church, is hardboiled writing reminiscent of a detective story. The liaison between Michael and Hanna assumes a more literary and poetic expression that is coiled in eroticism.
Bernhard Schlink employs the generational conflict between the lovers to establish a sense of distance to the actual Holocaust event. Equally unusual in modern Holocaust fiction is that the novel has as its main contact with the historical events a perpetrator instead of a victim. Hanna, once she attains literacy and understands the situation more fully than we can, cannot live with herself anymore. Her illiteracy, therefore, becomes a metaphor for modern understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Holocaust.That Michael feels a difficult identification with the victims and that he feels a misgiving of condemning and understanding her springs from the struggle to come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis. A indisputable fact: People could have heard it from Hitler’s mouth in his infamous 1939 radio broadcast to Germany and the world, threatening extermination of the Jews if war started. 216 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]
Filed under: Books, Contemporary Literature, Literature | Tagged: Bernhard Schlink, Books, Contemporary Literature, Fiction--Germany, Holocaust--Fiction, Literature, Reading, The Reader, Translation Fiction |