A Journalist's Archive

The Reader
Bernhard Schlink
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Bernhard Schlink is one sly writer. "The Reader" opens with what appears to be an erotic "coming of age" story. Now Schlink has you where he wants you. He knows you're not going to put the book down, so he takes his best shot and scores. While this novel is a short read, the moral and philosophical issues permeated my daytime thoughts long after I finished the book, and produced some nasty nightmares too. And so it should!

          "The Reader" takes place in post-war Germany. Fifteen year old Michael Berg is walking home from school when he becomes deathly ill. He may have died on the street but for the kindness of a woman. She makes sure he gets home, a doctor is called, and Berg spends the next few months at home recovering from hepatitis. Once he does, his mother encourages him to take some flowers to the woman to thank her for her kindness.

          Hanna Schmitz is ironing when Berg arrives.  She may be twice his age, but Berg can't keep his eyes off of her. After a second visit, the two begin having an affair. Even as his infatuation grows, Berg begins to notice little quirks in Hanna's behavior. She is hiding more than one secret. She reveals little personal information about her family or what she did during the war. Shortly into their relationship, it becomes clear Hanna wants more than sex. She asks Berg to read to her. It becomes part of their ritual, reading before and sometimes after intercourse.

          Their affair goes on for months. The two even manage to get away on a four-day biking vacation at Easter. Then Hanna Schmitz simply disappears, leaving town without an explanation. At first Berg is distraught; but with time she fades into his past.

          Fast-forward a few years and Berg is now a law student, eager to prosecute members of the "older generation" who willingly participated in the extermination of millions. He and his fellow students attend a war tribunal as part of a class assignment. Berg doesn't notice her at first, but when the judge calls out the name Hanna Schmitz, he looks closer. Yes, it is the same woman he made love to, now she is sitting on the defendants' bench along with numerous other SS prison camp guards.

          While volumes have been written about America's "Baby Boomers," little has been recorded about the moral dilemma post-war German children faced. Schlink uses the protagonist, Michael Berg, to present an honest account of how that generation reacted to the atrocities committed by some of their own parents. By the 1960's, even children of Hitler's most notorious SS unit were certain they would have had the intelligence and moral fortitude to stop Hitler before he launched his evil plan. When Berg says, "We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they tolerated the perpetrators in their midst," I believe Schlink is speaking for his entire generation.

          Berg becomes numb as he listens to the prosecution's case against Hanna. "Yes, she had served in Auschwitz until early 1944 and then in a small camp near Cracow until the winter of 1944-45."

          Schlink was born in Bethel, Germany in 1944, so obviously he had to face the horrid truth of his country's recent past. He writes "The Reader" in the first person allowing readers to eavesdrop on Berg's thoughts. Schlink was also a lawyer. So I have to wonder, is this book more fact than fiction?

          "The Reader" was published in 1995, but the book lingered in obscurity until it was made into a movie in 2008. I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know if it remains true to the book plot. I certainly hope so. But one thing is certain, Schlink produced a masterpiece that will keep readers thinking for a long time to come.

          Did Hanna deserve her fate? I have no sympathy for the devil or his minions. In fact, I find the question repulsive given the horrors millions of people were subjected to in Hitler's death camps. But then I'm sitting here in my "Ivory Tower," so read the book and decide for yourself.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2009 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved