The Reader (Der Vorleser) by Bernhard Schlink was originally written in German in 1995 and translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway. Set in the post-war Germany, it tells the story of the protagonist, Michael Berg, from the age of 15 to his old age. The book comprises three parts and each part takes place in a different time period in Michael’s life.
Michael is taken ill on his way home from school and a woman helps him out. When he recovers from hepatitis, he visits the woman to thank her. Hanna is 36 years old and works as a tram conductor. Through the crack of the door, he watches her changing out of her uniforms and when she catches him, he runs away. He returns the next day to apologize and their affair begins. When Hanna asks Michael to read to her, it becomes the ritual part of their affair. They fight and argue occasionally but Michael always ends up begging her forgiveness. He’s helplessly and hopelessly in love with her. Then one day Hanna disappears.
Michael studies law and he joins a group of students observing a war crimes trial. He is stunned to see Hanna as one of the defendants who were SS guards and guilty of licking the women inside a burning church. In the trial, Hanna refuses to deny the act she didn’t do. Then Michael realises what she has been concealing. He is torn with mixed emotions. He wants to help her get a lighter sentence but she’s too proud to be exposed of her secret. She is sentenced to life in prison. Years have passed. Michael now has a daughter from his failed marriage. He is still battling with his feelings for Hanna and tries to come to terms with it. Eventually, he started recording his favourite books and sends them for her.
The Reader is such a captivating read and one of the rare books that could place me into a chasm of woe after reading it. I watched the movie when it came out years ago and loved it immensely. It was beautifully adapted. I only managed to get a copy of the book a few months ago and read it this weekend. It is a bildungsroman as well as the post-war German generation coming to terms with their past.
Like his generation, Michael struggles to overcome the negatives of the past he inherits—the Nazi crimes and their parents’ guilt. Michael is helplessly and hopelessly in love with Hanna. He also feels guilty of having loved a criminal. His inability to condemn Hanna is somewhat understandable although for some people, it is not something acceptable. The picturesque desolation of a character constantly dealing with his love for a woman and the effect of the Holocaust on his generation is epically told.
However evocative the narrative is, their affair is one thing that bugged me in this novel. Though written in a tone of May-September romance, it is still an affair between an adult and a minor.His affair with Hanna affects him as an adolescent deeply. If it plays a vital role in his relationships with other women later, the guilt he feels for having such strong feelings for a woman with a Nazi past defines his adult life, too. It is very moving to read the forlorn years he has lived through.
The book is intricately mixed with emotions but love, secret and guilt are the recurring theme in the story. It starts as an erotic love story and later becomes philosophical journey and exploration of one’s life through Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The loss of one’s first love (true love!!) is already hard enough. If one’s already broken heart is to be further burden by additional forces, will it be shattered into pieces and can never be whole again?