The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is a well-written, vivid novel that begins with the story of a middle-aged single woman permitting a fifteen-year-old boy to have sex with her and then, after her abrupt disappearance, the story continues with the boy, now a law student, witnessing a trial in which she and four other women are charged with Holocaust atrocities.
In a sense the first portion of this book echoes another novel I've reviewed recently, John Banville's Ancient Light, where another older woman allows a teenage boy to play sex with her. In both cases, there's a prurient element animating the prose, of course, and there is a feminine reason behind the sensual largesse being offered and gratefully received.
The Reader's bite is manifold. Part I sets up a pattern of the boy reading things to the woman as a form of entertainment (just something she likes); later on, during the trial, the boy (now a law student) realizes that she--her name is Hanna--is illiterate. This matters because Hanna's codefendents heap blame on her for having written the report on a terrible fire in a sub-camp attached to Auschwitz. Our narrator/protagonist retrospectively realizes that Hanna couldn't have been the leading figure among the female guards, however, if writing a report is the telltale clue--but Hanna, ashamed of her illiteracy, goes along with what they claim, and the result is that the others get limited sentences and she gets a life sentence.
Before that happens, our narrator consults with his father, a philosopher, who suggests that the narrator should not approach the judge with what he knows about Hanna because it would intrude on Hanna's freedom and dignity to define her life as she wants to define it. That advice only partially sticks. The narrator does go see the judge, but in the event, he doesn't reveal what he knows. He just engages in legal chitchat.
The balance of the novel involves the narrator beginning to record classic texts for Hanna and sending them to her in prison. Eventually, some years into this phase of things, Hanna actually writes a crippled little note of thanks. So she's learned to write! And maybe she can read, so...? But the narrator keeps sending her cassettes, and eventually, after eighteen years, the prison warden, an enlightened soul, advises the narrator that Hanna will be granted clemency, raising the question of whether he will help reintegrate her into society. He agrees, but first, after so many, many years, he'll have to meet Hanna again, face-to-face, won't he?
I won't spoil the ending, but it's a turmoil of German post-Holocaust moral reckoning with which I am familiar, having lived and worked in Germany for three years. The narrator isn't guilty in the least except by extension, being German; he was a young boy during World War II. Hanna's guilt derives from the fact that she joined the SS because she was trying to avoid a promotion at Siemens that would have exposed her illiteracy. So yes, she was a guard at a death camp. Did she bear special culpability for the events of the particular night in question? That's not so clear. Ought the narrator have spoken up to the judge? I think so, but you might not. Did Hanna in a way ruin his later love life? It seems she did. Because she saw herself as nothing, she asked very little of him in return. That's not exactly how most relationships work; it's bad training, if you will.
Ultimately the narrator takes refuge in becoming a legal historian. The more or less explicit suggestion here is that he sees a continuity between the past, present and future. Things are different as time passes, but some differences linger in the air, in memory, in one's conscience.
Hanna is a consistent character throughout the novel. The narrator, by contrast, displays an interesting rupture between his abrupt loss of Hanna as a teenager and the kind of man he became. This is the tricky part, and although it's problematic, I think Schlink has something just about right: teenage boys can go wild about something--a girl, for instance--and then turn ice cold toward something--again, quite possibly a girl. Our narrator does that. Only much later does he accumulate the moral and psychological insight, and courage, to put the whole story together and grow into understanding the permanence of the past. By then certain things are too late, of course--poignant but true.
The issue of illiteracy is a vague stand-in for larger issues in The Reader. There is an association between illiteracy and innocence and, of course, between illiteracy and inadequacy and social shame. The narrator and Hanna both have great faith in great writers; late in life, while still in prison, Hanna actually accumulates a small library of books focused directly on the Holocaust. I've read a lot of these books; as powerful as they are, none by itself unravels the horrible fact of the Holocaust. The Reader now becomes another book on the Holocaust shelf; it offers a little more insight into the twists and turns of bludgeoning, senseless, depraved evil. What's ultimately important about this kind of literature, it seems to me, is that it does a better job of enlightening us than the kind of legal process in which Hanna was condemned.
For more of my comments on contemporary literature, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle), and by the way, two of my recent stories--"How Chung's Sister Got Her Name" and "Nothing Out There Except Ourselves"--can be read on-line in The Baltimore Review and Bewildering Stories respectively.
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