The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
What the Back of the Book Has to Say:
"Bernhard Schlink's extraordinary novel The Reader is a compelling meditation on the connections between Germany's past and its present, dramatised with extreme emotional intelligence as the story of a relationship between the narrator and an older woman. It has won deserved praise across Europe for the tact and power with which it handles its material, both erotic and philosophical."
-Independent Saturday Magazine
Why I Picked It Up:
I had enjoyed Catcher in the Rye so much that I wanted to read something heavy-ish. A book about Nazism and questionably appropriate relationships that inspired an award winning movie? Sounded like it fit the bill.
What I Think:
When I came to Japan as an exchange student almost two years ago now, The Reader (the movie) was just being released on this side of the world. Of course, it had already had its heyday in America and I knew a bit about it, as I tend to know a bit about every movie that comes out, nevermind whether I end up seeing it or not. I remember taking the train to university every morning and seeing the banner for the movie hanging from the carriage's ceiling and laughing at what the Japanese had titled the movie.
The Japanese title of the movie roughly translated to "The Person Who Reads Love." I found this hilarious. What little I knew about the movie at this point was this: Kate Winslet played a female Nazi who was having an affair with an underaged boy. Somehow books were involved. I could not think of a less romantic story to have such a romantic title. I chalked it up to a case of the Japanese not really grasping the point of some movies and marketing it their own way.
To this day, I haven't seen the movie. I know that it won a lot of awards and Kate Winslet even got the Oscar for her performance in it but I'm not really one for serious movies most of the time and it didn't really appeal to me. Whenever I thought of the title, the only image that came to mind was Hugh Jackman doing his Oscar opening montage and singing, with people dressed in metallic suits behind him, "The Reader~ I didn't see The Reader~"
With all of this bizarre lead up to the novel, I knew to expect something deep and possibly very sad. That was what I was in the mood for. But the novel was nothing like what I expected and it blew me away.
The Reader is told in three parts, all from the point of view of a man named Michael Berg at different stages in his life, as if he is looking back and reflecting in old age. The first section recounts his relationship with a woman named Hanna when he was only fifteen years old. His early descent into sensuality and carnality leaves its mark on him for years to come. This is the section of the plot that it seems most of the promotion for the movie centered around. When I told my mother I read The Reader, she responded with "I've never seen that movie. All I know is that Kate Winslet was naked a lot." Which is probably true but if that's all one focuses on, one would miss the point.
The second section (and my particular favorite) has Michael in college, taking a class on the law and how the government is dealing with the repercussions of Nazi Germany. Michael attends a war crimes trial as part of his class and is surprised to see Hanna again after many years, this time as a defendant in the case. This causes Michael to reconsider a lot of beliefs he thought he held and struggle with philosophical questions that even the reader will have to really consider as they follow along.
The third and final section finds Michael as a man who has lived a sort of life and is dealing with the echoes of his unusual past when he is forced to confront something he never really wanted to.
This novel is a beautiful piece of work, told in a very simplistic style that both blunts ideas and veils them. The use of repetition of phrases and themes, the non-romanticly written romance, and the memoir-esque tone all firmly establish a dissonance of distance and intimacy with the narrative, mirroring how Michael deals with the world around him.
The entire book is a long metaphor for how Germany should deal with its past. Michael is a representative of the first generation of Germans post-World War II, the children who could not respect nor understand their parents but still had to learn from them. The books asks questions like can someone have both understanding and condemnation? How exactly is blame established? and Can anything be seen in black and white?
This is all perfectly incapsulated in the main theme of the book, the secret that Hanna would rather keep than use to help her in court. Michael struggles with his knowledge of it and there really is no right answer. And that is this novel in a nutshell: there is no right answer. There are only humans and actions. What are laws? What is morality? At what stage should you judge by any factor?
I really enjoyed this novel and it's a surprisingly fast read. It's only a little over 200 pages and the chapters are so short, I found I had finished it in two train rides. Despite that, however, I think it really will stick with me for years to come. Highly recommended, if you're in the mood for some light heavy reading.