I don’t know why I put off reading The Reader for so long. I saw the film when it came out and enjoyed it so much I bought the book the next day. Perhaps I thought I knew the story already, so was in no rush to read it. Well, six years later I finally got around to it.
Beginning in 1950s Germany, The Reader is told from the perspective of Michael, who, as a 15-year-old, began an affair with an older woman named Hanna. After she moves away he gets on with his life becoming a law student, until one day he witnesses a trial prosecuting Hanna for her role as a guard at Auschwitz. Hanna gets much of the blame from her co-defendants, with them calling her the ringleader, but Michael knows that their reasoning can’t be true because of the sort-of-twist that is actually given away by the title. Michael finds himself asking philosophical questions about German guilt himself; does he tell the judge Hanna’s secret, or not say anything? The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of the trial and Michael’s relationship with Hanna haunts his newer relationships.
The thing I found most interesting about The Reader was its exploration of memory. Michael questions if earlier memories have been coloured by more his recent memories. Did he always think of Hanna a certain way, or did his memories alter after he discovered her role in the Holocaust? His narrative of visiting a concentration camp is seen in hindsight; he remembers what it was like last time he visited; he remembers the thoughts that were preoccupying him at that time. He speaks of films about the Holocaust ‘supplementing and embellishing’ his view of what happened. It is a fallacy to believe that our memories will always stay the same. I tend to adore books that acknowledge this.
I was afraid that Hanna would be used as a feminine representation of guilt felt by the German people after the Holocaust, but she was a well-rounded character. I could see why she wouldn’t want people knowing that she can’t read, and found it interesting that Schlink examined this. Sometimes people can’t see past their own problems to see the actual carnage they are causing themselves. I think that Schlink explores guilt in a very human way. Characters here are complex, as are the many reasons why real, actual people do horrific things.
So, I really enjoyed The Reader, though perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right word. It takes a gutsy writer to combine Nazi atrocities with erotic adventures. But to be honest, the erotic scenes weren’t very erotic, but perhaps they would be to a 15-year-old boy. This book is often on various ‘best books’ lists and, in my view, this is justified.