The Reader book review
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana, The Life of Reason
The Germans have a word for the struggle of those born after the Second World War to overcome the negatives of the past: Vergangenheitsbewältigung can be defined as the public debate that continues to this day to deal with the embarrassment and remorse for the atrocities carried out in the name of National Socialism.
Culturally, the term is associated with the post-war literature that tries to come to terms with the Holocaust. I use the phrase “come to terms with” deliberately; it can never, I think, be fully understood. It is simply beyond comprehension. Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum was an early entry in this particular canon; The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, is another. While The Tin Drum has been said to define the 20th century, that definition is not complete without The Reader, which explores the ways in which the next generation judged their parents and grandparents, demonizing them at least partly to achieve a certain distance from the horror of the Holocaust.
The Reader asks if such distance is ever possible? To what extent do we all, even those of us who weren’t born at the time, share culpability with those who’ve gone before?
One afternoon in October, 1958, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg falls ill. He leans against the wall of a building and vomits. A woman pulls him into the courtyard of the building, washes his hands and face, cleans away the vomit, and walks him home. The doctor diagnoses hepatitis, keeping Michael out of school for three months. When he’s finally able to get out and about again, he goes to visit the woman who helped him, ostensibly to thank her but really because he can’t get her out of his mind. Her name is Hanna Schmitz and she’s a 36-year-old train conductor who lives alone. Embarrassed to find himself attracted to her, Michael leaves, but returns a few days later and helps her bring coal up from the cellar. Afterwards, covered in coal dust, he allows Hanna to bathe and then seduce him.
This is the beginning of an intense, short-lived affair which follows a pattern: she bathes him, then asks him to read to her before they have sex. The affair gives Michael new confidence, not just with women but with the boys at his school, and he finds himself torn between wanting to be with Hanna and needing to socialize with his peers. When, after a few months, Hanna suddenly leaves without a trace, Michael is devastated. But he’s young; he finds girls his own age to love and the pain of Hanna’s departure fades. Still, he cannot escape her. From now on all of his relationships will be tarnished by his memories of Hanna.
The next time he sees her is six years later, in a courtroom. Michael’s a law student now, and he and his fellow students have been assigned to follow and report on the Nazi war trials. He’s stunned to see Hanna among the defendants, a group of women who were guards at the concentration camp in Krakow. They’re charged with allowing a bombed church to burn to the ground with 300 Jewish women trapped inside. Why, the prosecutors ask, did the guards not unlock the doors of the church and save the prisoners? Why did you choose to let them burn to death? When questioned, Hanna seems confused. “What should I have done?” she wonders. She asks the judge, “What would you have done?”
It comes out that while she was a guard she would take the most frail, the most vulnerable young prisoners under her wing and have them read to her, before sending them back to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The implication in court is that she was ruthlessly exploiting them, possibly sexually, and then getting rid of them when she was tired of them.
The most damning evidence comes from a woman who wrote a book about the bombing of the church. She and her mother survived the fire, and she is the prosecution’s main witness. Day after day, as he watches the proceedings, Michael finds himself in an emotional turmoil over having loved a woman who could do the things Hanna is charged with. He’s also bewildered by her refusal to do or say anything to defend herself. When the other women turn on her and blame her for writing the report of the fire, she at first denies it and then, when the court asks for a sample of her handwriting, she panics and says yes, she wrote it. Michael realizes that Hanna is desperate to conceal something she considers more shameful than being tried for murder: she cannot read or write.
Knowing this, he wants to go to the judge and tell him Hanna could not have been the group’s leader, as she’s been painted in court. But he also knows she would rather go to prison than be branded as an illiterate. While the other defendants are given minor jail sentences, Hanna is the one who’s sentenced to prison for life.
After the trial, Michael struggles to come to grips with the situation. Hanna was guilty of a horrendous crime. He knows that. But he had loved her.
“Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her. I tried to tell myself that I had known nothing of what she had done when I chose her. I tried to talk myself into the state of innocence in which children love their parents. But love of our parents is the only love for which we are not responsible”. And was it possible that the love his friends and colleagues had for their parents made them somehow complicit in their crimes?
Several years later, Michael begins sending her cassettes of him reading out loud, just as he used to do when they were together. On her own, listening to his tapes while following along with the books she’s borrowed from the prison library, Hanna teaches herself to read. She writes to thank him but he doesn’t respond. Finally, after 18 years, Hanna is about to be let out of prison. Pressured by the warden, Michael reluctantly goes to visit her in jail and agrees to help find her a place to live, and a job. The day she’s to be released, Hanna hangs herself at daybreak. According to the warden, Hanna read all the important post-Holocaust writers, such as Elie Weisel, Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, as well as stories of the camps. We are never told but it seems likely that it’s her reading that leads Hanna to her death when she finally, fully comprehends the part she played in this terrible history.
The warden says Hanna has left a request for Michael: she wants him to give all her money to the survivors of the church fire. He travels to New York to see the woman who wrote the book about the fire. When he hands her Hanna’s money, contained in an old tea caddy, she refuses to take it, refuses to “grant Frau Schmitz her absolution”. The tin reminds her of one she had as a girl, that was stolen from her when she was sent to the camp. She suggests he give the money to a Jewish literacy group, but says she’ll keep the tin.
As an exploration of guilt, of public shame and culpability, The Reader asks more questions than it answers. Which is as it should be. Another writer would choose an easier route . . . would cast Hanna as a cold-hearted, two-dimensional villain. Schlink’s elegant prose never allows moral outrage to overwhelm the narrative. He leaves that to the reader.
This is my last post for 2018. Thank you for following me this year. I wish you a blissful, relaxing (if possible) Christmas and a very happy New Year. See you in 2019.