In The Reader, German writer Bernhard Schlink tells the story of Michael Berg, who at age 15 begins an intimate relationship with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old streetcar conductor. They meet when Michael falls ill with hepatitis, and Hanna helps him home. After he recovers, he goes to her apartment to thank her, thus beginning a relationship based on lust and a thirst for words, with Hanna forcing Michael to read to her before they make love. Michael spends much of his time visiting Hanna, trying to keep up with his school work, and hiding their relationship from family and friends.
Michael is hurt when Hanna leaves one day without a trace, and his feelings for her (was is love? lust? obsession?) and the time they spent together make it difficult for him to pursue other relationships. He sees her again when he is a college student and she is on trial for crimes committed during World War II as a Nazi concentration camp guard. This is where the story gets interesting. Michael discovers Hanna's secret, the thing of which she is most ashamed, that prevents her from defending herself against murder charges and ties her and Michael together for the rest of their days.
The Reader is told by an adult Michael in the first person as he attempts to write the story of their relationship many years after the trial and its aftermath. While I thought the book was well written, I had a hard time connecting with the characters -- maybe because I find the idea of a sexual relationship between a teenage boy and a woman just a few years older than me extremely disturbing. (She calls him "kid" for crying out loud!) Michael seems to understand at the time that their relationship isn't quite right -- he finds it difficult to talk about it even years after they separate and doesn't tell his wife -- but that could be because the adult Michael is telling the story, not an impulsive teenage boy with raging hormones. From the way he tells the story, Hanna is sort of detached from things much of the time, so while she initiates their first sexual encounter, it seems as though Michael goes back time and again because he wants to, not because he's coerced or anything like that. As for Hanna, I can understand that her secret was distressing, frustrating, and even embarrassing, but was it worth life in prison (which she deserved regardless of whether or not she defended herself)?
The Reader raises a multitude of issues -- questions of morality, guilt, and atonement regarding Hanna's actions as a concentration camp guard, Hanna and Michael's relationship, and post-war Germany as a whole. Here's another passage that caught my eye, when Michael hitchhiked to the Struthof concentration camp and the driver gave his opinion about why the Holocaust occurred.
"But the people who were murdered in the camps hadn't done anything to the individuals who murdered them? Is that what you want to say? Do you mean that there was no reason for hatred, and no war?"Personally, it doesn't matter whether the guards were all crazy, whether they were following orders, or whether they were indifferent -- it's all wrong and makes me sick to my stomach.
I didn't want to nod again. What he said was true, but not the way he said it.
"You're right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred. But the executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same. Because they're ordered to? You think they do it because they're ordered to? And you think that I'm talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?" He laughed sarcastically. "No, I'm not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not." (page 151)
Overall, I thought The Reader was a page-turner and a great read simply because it has the power to generate strong emotions and discussion on so many topics.
The Reader was another selection for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of The Reader.