Tuesday, March 24, 2009

book review - The Reader

When a book becomes synonymous with a film it is difficult to enjoy one without evaluating the influence of the other.

In my case I had not seen the film and picked up Bernard Schlink’s book at a charity shop a while ago. What drove me to read it was a quick flick through the first few pages. The style is taut and the chapters short.

The emotional depth has to be provided by the reader themselves as they piece together the things that are left unsaid between the 15 year old boy Michael and his 36 year old lover Hanna. The relationship is physical, lived in the gap between work and school and relatively brief in the wider scheme of things.

Of course for the boy it is a fundamental part of his growing up and his relationship lives on in the memory for the rest of his life having an impact on his marriage and other sexual entanglements.

But that is only half the story because the focus is on what the woman did during the war and the big questions of where guilt lies during war – with the individual or the system – and how different generations should react to it.

Is it possible to love someone who was responsible for hideous acts? In the end that is the struggle that destroys Michael and as he sits as a law student a few years after the affair and watches Hanna defend herself against war crime charges it is an uncomfortable experience.

What are those pushing the trials motivated by? Finding people to blame, even when the facts are vague at best, seems to be the desire to at least hold someone up as guilty to count for the debts and sins of others.

During the case Michael works out that Hanna cannot read and it is that fact that not only allows him to piece together why she relied on him to read aloud so much but why she also got prisoners in the camps to do the same. He could potentially save her when she lies but her pride is so much that she would rather go to prison than reveal her weakness. At the conclusion it is that pride that destroys her. She does not want sympathy.

In a way the reader is left working out what they feel about guilt, responsibility and the merits of chasing down people long after the event to get them to face some sort of justice. Are the Germans as a nation collectively to blame for their failure to resist the darkness of Hitler’s regime? If you answer yes then of course the individual fingering of Hanna seems to be unfair. If you believe not then the trial makes more sense but only slightly more.

A provocative book that for many will be about the power of relationships across the generations but for me was an intelligent way of looking at the consequences and reaction to some of the horrors of the Second World War.

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