History: It was published in Germany in 1995 and in the United States in 1997. Bernhard Schlink is a law professor and a judge. The novel was a departure from Schlink's usual detective novels.
Plot: Part I begins in the city of Neustadt, West Germany in 1958. After 15-year-old Michael becomes ill on his way home, 36-year-old tram conductress Hanna Schmitz notices him, cleans him up, and sees him safely on his way home. After several months o sickness – hepatitis - he visits her to thank her for her help and realizes he is attracted to her. Embarrassed after she catches him watching her getting dressed, he runs away, but he returns days later. After she directs him to retrieve coal from the cellar, he is covered with coal dust. She watches him bathe and seduces him. He returns eagerly to her apartment on a regular basis, and begins a heated affair. They develop a ritual of bathing and having sex, before which she frequently has him read aloud to her, especially classical literature. Both remain somewhat distant from each other emotionally despite their physical closeness. Hanna, wrestling with her own guilt, is at times physically and verbally abusive to Michael. Months later, Hanna suddenly leaves without a trace. Michael feels guilty and believes it was something he did that caused her departure. The memory of Hanna taints all his other relationships with women.
In Part II, eight years later, while attending law school, he is part of a group of students observing a war crimes trial. A group of middle-aged women who had served as SS guards at a satellite of Auschwitz in occupied Poland are being tried for allowing 300 Jewish women under their ostensible "protection" to die in a fire locked in a church that had been bombed during the evacuation of the camp. To Michael's stunned surprise, Hanna is one of the defendants, sending him on a roller coaster of complex emotions. She is accused of writing the account of the fire. At first she denies this but then in panic admits it in order to not have to give a sample of her handwriting. Michael, horrified, realizes that Hanna has a secret she considers worse than her Nazi past — she is illiterate.
During the trial, it comes out that she took in the weak, sickly women and had them read to her before they were sent to the gas chambers. Michael decides she wanted to make their last days bearable; or did she send them to their death so they would not reveal her secret? She is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He could have revealed her secret and so spared her that, but cannot master his emotions.
Part III: Michael, trying to come to terms with his feelings for Hanna, begins taping readings of books and sending them to her without any correspondence while she is in prison. Years have passed, Michael is divorced and has a daughter from his brief marriage. Hanna begins to teach herself to read, and then write in a childlike way, by borrowing the books from the prison library and following the tapes along in the text. She writes to Michael, but he cannot bring himself to reply. After 18 years, Hanna is about to be released, he agrees (after hesitation) to find her a place to stay and employment, visiting her in prison. On the day of her release in 1984, though, she commits suicide and Michael is heartbroken. Hanna left him an assignment: give all her money to the survivor of the church fire.. Michael visits the Jewish woman now living in New York. She can see his terrible conflict of emotions and he finally tells of his youthful relationship with Hanna. The woman, comprehending but unable to resolve her own loss of family, refuses to take the savings Hanna had asked Michael to convey to her, saying, "That would mean giving absolution, which I cannot do". She asks that he donate it as he sees fit; he chooses a Jewish charity for combating illiteracy, in Hanna's name. The woman does, however, take the old tin tea box in which Hanna had kept her money and mementos, "to replace the similar tea box which was stolen from me as a child in the camp"—a small gesture towards her former guard, and healing her own memories. Returning to Germany, Michael visits Hanna's grave for the first and only time.
Review: The problem was I never felt a thing for either Michael nor Hanna, and was never emotionally engaged in their story. Michael narrates this short novel and repeatedly tells us that he feels nothing. Sadly, Schlink left this reader the same way.
Bernhard Schlink’s style is one which tells the story instead of showing it. The courtroom scenes could have been dramatic, emotional, and revealing had Schlink used dialogue to show us what was happening. Instead he simply tells the reader what is going on - a dry recitation of facts which left me oddly detached.
The Reader is a story about illiteracy which falls flat perhaps, in part, because it is paralleled with the horror of the Nazi atrocities. Schlink wants the reader to believe that illiteracy is somehow more appalling than a Nazi guard’s role in the deaths of thousands. It is a rather ludicrous position.
A couple of things caught me in the novel which weren’t central to the main theme. Early on, the narrator is confused about himself and his actions: “Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something - whatever that may be - goes into action, ‘it’ gos to the woman I don’t want to see any more, ‘it’ makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head".
Here, he is chewing over something that has kept philosophers busy since the time of Paul and before that. This is original sin, and Schlink distinguishes his behaviour from thoughts and decisions which he says are wholly his. This has important ramifications from what happens later in the novel and the way that he can view those who have been part of the Nazi regime and demonstrated horrific behaviour. The thing is though, at what point do we distinguish between instinctive behaviour and premeditated behaviour? How do we decide what amoral behaviour is in fact?
Later in the book, the narrator meets up with his father for a brief philosophical interlude. In it, his father advises that he sees “no justification for setting other people’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves.” I found this food for thought, especially as his only concession was if the issue was one of inherited responsibility. Then “one must try to open his eyes” to what he is blind too.
It is concerns such as these that litter this small novel with vast moral crevasses and it is much the better for it.
Opening Line: “When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis.”
Closing Line: “It was the first and only time I stood there.”
Quotes: ""...the truth of what one says lies in what one does."