A novel in three parts, Bernard Schlink’s The Reader is a deceptively simple story about maybe the most incomprehensible topic in modern history, The Holocaust. It’s clear, concise prose and light tread over serious topics make it a quick read that will stay with the reader long after turning the final page.
Michael Berg first meets Frau Schmitz when he is taken ill on his way to school. She takes care of him and brings him back home. Returning after his lengthy recuperation to thank her, the 15-year-old boy is seduced by the 36-year-old Hanna. The two begin a passionate and lengthy affair which irrevocably changes young Michael. He is more confident and self-assured as a result, but also aloof and withdrawn from his peers. He is distraught and perplexed when Hanna leaves town without explanation.
Part two of the novel opens with Michael in law school assigned to follow a war crimes trial. The case involves five female guards who refused to unlock the doors of a church where female prisoners were being held even though it was on fire. Michael is stunned to see that his former lover Hanna is one of the guards on trial. Hanna’s defense is confusing as well. She readily admits some things that the other guards deny, and yet often seems incapable of understanding the proceedings and assisting her attorney.
Watching the trial progress and reflecting back on his time with Hanna, Michael realizes a secret about Hanna, something that apparently shames her even more than her participation in the war. That secret should be pretty obvious from the title or at least from the coverage of Kate Winslet’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Hanna in the film adaptation.
As Michael deals with the effects of his discovery, his inability to help Hanna, and the outcome of the trial, he meditates on the unique fate that has befallen on his generation. Berg and Schlink are about the same age and so this can be seen as autobiographical ruminating. It is also incredibly fascinating. Both men, the fictional narrator and his creator, are members of a generation of Germans born into a world where their parents generation had been complicit, willingly or otherwise, in the greatest atrocity the modern world has known. Berg’s thoughts on repudiation, blame and reconciliation are fascinating for their real-world implications.
For a slim novel, The Reader is packed with real emotion and weighty thoughts. And it is all presented in the guise of a resonant and compelling story. This is truly a masterful novel.