Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Reader

The Reader
by Bernhard Schlink

I definitely ruined the reading of this novel for myself by watching the film first. With every mention of Hanna, I imagined Kate Winslet as a Nazi, speaking with a German accent. Which would then remind me of Ralph Feinnes, playing a German, but speaking with an English accent. That bit of the movie did not make a whole lot of sense to me.

The story is bifurcated into two parts. In the first, Michael Berg, a fifteen year-old, has an affair with a thirty-something woman named Hanna Schmitz. He falls in love. She soon skips town. Then you blink, turn the page, and years later Michael is a law student attending a seminar on Germany's Nazi past. He attends a war trial, and wouldn't you know it, one of the accused camp guards is none other than Hanna. Syurpriz! Hanna has a secret that may possibly lessen her sentence if brought to light. Michael realizes that he's always known the secret, but he does not bring it to the court either.

There's many interesting things going on -- that Michael has quite a lot to think about. On the one hand he is quick to condemn, obviously the Nazis, but also the society that accepted them after the war. Buzzword(s): collective guilt. On the other hand, he realizes that he himself fell in love and had an affair with one of those Nazis. Sure, he did not know of her past at the time, but the woman that he had made love to and obsessed over was the same woman who had picked out the monthly quota of Jewish prisoners to be sent to their deaths and the same woman who had allowed her whole charge to burn to their deaths in a church fire. How does he reconcile his two sides? Does he have the responsibility to share Hanna's secret with the world or should he let her self-destruct? He also finds that his love for Hanna, his first love, affects all of his succeeding relationships. This novel is an easy read, but the moral and philosophical challenges involved are more than difficult.

4 out of 5

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