The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
by Amy Pirt
This is probably a book which most of you will read after watching the film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. This is no bad thing: it is a great film which is very true to the novel, and Fiennes and Winslet are as brilliant as always. But if you’ve not watched the film, then please do read the book first. Michael Berg is fifteen years old. One day, walking home from school, he is violently sick, and an older woman takes him into her apartment to clean him up. Whilst having a bath, Michael notices Hanna watching him washing; embarassed, he dresses hurriedly and flees.
But Michael cannot forget the woman who cleared up his vomit (how vomantic), so he takes her some flowers to thank her. After he returns the favour by filling up her coal scuttle, he bathes again and once again catches Hanna watching him. This time, he is not embarassed. This time, they have passionate sex and it is implied that he loses his virginity to her.
A relationship begins; a routine of bathing, sex and reading ensues. Hanna asks Michael what he’s reading at school and then asks him to read to her. Teacher and pupil roles are reversed regularly: Michael teaches Hanna about literature, Hanna teaches Michael about sex.
Time passes. Hanna is angry with Michael when he joins the tram on which she is working and acts immaturely; their relationship is a secret from his family and friends and ultimately cannot compete with the latter. One day, Michael knocks on Hanna’s door and she has gone – for good.
Schlink skips a few years and we meet Michael again at university. Like his author, he is reading law. It is the late Sixties, the Vergangenheitsbewältigung-era in Germany. He observes a war criminal trial and is stunned to discover that one of the defendants is none other than Hanna.
As the trial progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the other defendents, who were low ranking concentration camp workers, are determined to walk free and see Hanna take the entire responsibility for the murder in the church during an imfamous death march. When Michael realises that Hanna is prepared to face a life in prison rather than reveal her secret, a secret which would absolve her of a great deal of responsibility, he also finally realises what that secret is: Hanna is illiterate.
I shan’t reveal the rest of the plot: it is pretty obvious to you, I’m sure, that Hannah goes to prison. But that’s not the end of the story. What is the end? And who is the eponymous Reader?
Schlink’s novel broke my heart and angered me all in one go. History has rightly taught us to view the Holocaust purely from the Jewish perspective, and for Schlink to suggest we sympathise with a Nazi war criminal is extremely controversial. But the problem is, he is not only writing about the German problem of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, he is also writing a love story. For I believe that Michael never stops loving Hanna. She is punished for her crime, and he is punished for his.