Bernard Schlink’s The Reader is not your typical Holocaust book. There is essentially no violence, our main protagonist does not face death (except for a bout of hepatitis), and the text explores sexuality and growing up more so than human evil and the morality of following orders.
Nothing about our narrator, Michael Berg, gives him any special insight into the Holocaust until he meets Hanna. He is an average German teenager whose illness leads to considerable time off from school. In all probability, he would have continued his courses, moved on to the next year, and lived the same existence as his contemporaries had he not vomited near Hanna Schmitz.
Hanna is not your traditional love interest. 36 years old (to Michael’s 15), their attraction is one of curiosity and base desire. Hanna is not a classic archetype of beauty. Her job as a tram conductor mirrors her rough qualities, blunt speech, and resistance to any sort of emotional commitment. She distances Michael by calling him “kid,” exposing him to her sudden, violent mood swings, and insisting that she is not his mother (despite ordering him to return to class and interact with his peers).
Still, Schlink delivers us a love story through romantic, devoted Michael. He is willing to miss class, jeopardize his academic career, and lose connection with his friends if it leads to time with Hanna, usually spent reading to her despite his preference for love-making. His affectionate descriptions of her body force the reader to feel his love even if we, as objective spectators, can spot Hanna’s flaws without much endeavor. When Hanna leaves, we assume that one day the two lovers will be reunited with cherubs all around and the sunset behind them.
Unfortunately, no romantic picnic is in store for these two. Michael next sees Hanna when his law professor sends him to her criminal trial. As a guard in a women’s labor camp near Auschwitz, she is accused of allowing a great number of women to burn to death in a church. Silently, Michael watches each day as Hanna faces inhumane charges, struggling to reconcile this Nazi monster with the woman he adored.
A slim volume, The Reader holds a surprisingly great emotional quandary in its few pages. As Hanna’s trial reaches unforeseen conclusions, Michael asks himself questions that speak directly to the reader. Once he considers his own love life, which has been heavily burdened by his relationship with Hanna, he embarks on a quest to rid himself of his own guilt. Of what is he guilty? If Michael is guilty, then can we all be? If so, when do we let go of guilt, or what can we do to atone?
The Reader contains no easy answers. Like John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down (a Holocaust book that gave sad stories and faces to the Nazi soldiers forced to invade and attack), The Reader has few clear villains. With such depth and complexity, Schlink’s book will remain with you for some time after you have put it down.