Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

A mysterious older woman is kind to a fifteen year old boy

One afternoon during the late 1950’s, German high school student Michael Berg vomits on his way home from school and is assisted by the no nonsense Hanna, a red headed woman in her thirties.  After he returns to her apartment to thank her, he glimpses, through an open door, her putting on her stockings. They begin an affair and she teaches him about sexual pleasure.  Together they take a secret bicycle vacation and she becomes irrationally angry when he slips out for coffee, leaving only a note.  One day Hanna vanishes and Michael continues with his life.   He marries and has a child, but realizes no woman can inspire the same passion he felt for Hanna. Then, as a law student, he is called to observe the trial of several Nazi guards accused of atrocities – Hanna is among them.

This book was short and sensuously written. I enjoyed reading about their youthful love affair. My problem was when after Michael starts observing the trial the reader realizes he is incredibly pompous and condescending. He suddenly divines that Hanna is illiterate which would ameliorate some of her guilt and allow her to put on a better defense. This plot twist felt gimmicky and annoying. He attempts to explain her illiteracy to the judge but Hanna has no interest in trying to ameliorate her guilt. She doesn’t think she is guilty at all. She was only doing what anyone else, any other German, would have done in that situation. If a group of women condemned to die are burning to death in a church, are the prison guards supposed to save them? What is also on trial is the cooperation of the German people with the inhumane Nazi regime. Hanna was just following orders. 
Afterwards, Michael feels guilty, troubled by her unwillingness to defend herself. He narrates some books into a tape recorder and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison. He doesn’t write or call, just regularly mails the tapes. Eighteen years later, the warden calls. Hanna is ready to be released – can Michael help? Michael goes to the prison. But Hanna is no longer his hot playmate, but a stout older lady who smells funny. She kills herself before release, and Michael travels to New York to discuss things with the lone surviver of the atrocity. The talk doesn't go well.

I'm not sure what the reader is supposed to feel at the end of the book. To feel sorry for Michael?  Who couldn't even visit poor Hanna in prison?

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