“The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink , translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
Although “The Reader” is one of those books about which little can be said without giving away the ‘secret,’ it’s a great novel in the way that it approaches guilt and moral responsibility. Since it has been made into a movie that’s coming out in a few weeks (January 9, 2009), I thought I’d review it now.
“The Reader” is set in post World War II Germany, starting in the 1950s. Michael Berg, a 15 year old becomes so sick from hepatitis that he vomits in the street. Hanna Schmitz, who is much older than he—in her thirties–helps him. After months of recovery, Michael goes to Hanna’s house to thank her for her assistance. The two begin a love affair. Right away, we wonder about the moral ambiguity of the characters as Michael is only a minor. (Note that this is not a book with any sexual description; the things that the reader will find offensive or at least question are the decisions and actions of the characters, not graphic scenes.)
Soon Hanna makes Michael read to her each time he visits. When Hanna disappears without a trace, Michael is forlorn. Several years latter, when Michael is a law student, he is assigned to follow a trial in which Hanna is one of the defendants, accused of Nazi war crimes as a former SS officer.
When other defendants place the blames for many atrocities on Hanna in order to mitigate their own guilt, she is both evil and a scapegoat. Why she allows this is one of the secrets of the novel. “The Reader” raises questions about whether a person can be both evil and benign and about society’s responsibility to remember its history, including its atrocities. Though a quick read at just over 200 pages, the novel is thought provoking.