The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Quite a few people at work have been reading this one so I jumped at the chance to borrow it when a colleague offered it to me, so that we could compare thoughts afterwards. It is a very quick read, even for me, and there is a lot of talk about it generally with the film doing well at the moment.

Translated from its original German, and set in Germany, it is a novel of 3 parts, told in retrospect by the male lead.

Part 1 focuses on the young 15 year old Michael Berg, who embarks on a troubled but passionate affair with an older woman, Hanna, who gets him to read to her. Completely smitten, Michael obsesses in the way first love can override all else, even sensibility. Hanna, who does not seem phased by his age, is more complex, seeming to have feelings for him, but behaving elusively, eventually disappearing, suddenly, leaving Michael heartbroken.

Part 2 is some years later, when Michael is a history student, sent to another town to research a trial that is taking place, where the accused are charged, having been concentration camp guards during the war, with murder, by leaving a large group of women prisoners to die in a church fire when they had the means to let them out. Hanna is one of the guards on trial.

Part 3 examines the aftermath of the trial, which you should all read for yourselves.

This story is told simply and is very easy to read, but the themes and emotions that it evokes are far from simple. Apart from being an incredibly moving love story, this novel points out that nothing is black and white. The feelings of both characters are on display here. Michael mainly because he narrates it and is very honest about his feelings for Hanna, and his own inherited guilt complexes, being a second generation German dealing with the burden of being the nation who murdered so many innocents. He also eloquantly examines the causes for Hanna's life choices too. He does not offer excuses, he just presents the story to us so that we have to sift through the many grey area's that can form anyone's life. We can all make bad choices, and very often things are not as straight forward as they seem.

It has taken a long time for the more complicated view to be aired I think. They say history is always written by the winning side, and finally it feels safe to examine, and I do not mean to condone, the actions of some of the people who were caught up in the cruelties of Nazi Germany during WWII. This book has also given a voice to the second generation Germans who were abhorred by the Holocaust.

This is a novel that presents more questions than offers answers. I felt conflicting emotions towards both characters, I did not feel that either were evil or inherantly bad, even though both make contraversial choices. I did feel that they were human, with all the complexities that goes with that. And I was incredibly moved, especially during the last 2 parts. There are some scenes that have stayed with me since I have finished it (the description of the church fire, the conversation between Michael and his father, the meeting years later with Hanna). These are continuing to evoke emotion in me, and I feel that this is due to the strength of the writing. While there are many many excellent Holocaust stories, this one is an unexpected voice among them, no less skilled. An alternative. The question is are we ready to allow such a voice. Maybe not for everyone, but it should be read, widely. This is why this book is important.
I would like to now see the film.

This book would be perfect for readers groups and there is a reading guide here.

Also there is a link here to check out how it was made into a film.

Next week I hope to correlate the thoughts of my colleagues who have also read the book for #10 of the 2009 mini challenges.


lunarossa said...

I find the film very good, much better than I thought it would have been. Glad you liked it, that was your answer to my question. All the best. Ciao. A.

Leah said...

Thanks lunarossa, I did like it, very much. I think some of the images will stay with me for a long time.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

This book is sitting patiently on my shelf waiting for me....your review makes me want to pick it up right now!

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