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Challenging and refreshingly different!
on 7 May 2010
Readers who are prepared to face the challenge of unconventional thinking on the Holocaust will enjoy Bernard Schlink's Der Vorleser. While Post-Holocaust collective guilt is a recurring theme throughout much of contemporary German literature, Schlink's refreshingly different approach and refusal to succumb to stereotypes sets Der Vorleser apart from the rest.
Indeed, as the schoolboy narrator's relationship with a mysterious 36 year-old woman unfolds in Part One, we could be forgiven for assuming that the entire novel would centre around this love affair. And in essence, it does. Schlink uses this unorthodox relationship as a metaphor for Germany's so-called `second generation' seeking to build a future, while facing up to the previous generation's dark Holocaust past. As such, he makes the collective feelings of guilt, betrayal, resentment and uncertainty internationally accessible, which may have otherwise been difficult for a non-German reader to grasp.
Schlink should be applauded for the impressively realistic narration of an adolescent in Part One, leaving the reader uneasy, as we share in his wholly convincing experience of obsessive first love. Yet it is this plausible depiction that presents difficulties as we begin Part Two. Having been so engrossed by the musings of an infatuated schoolboy, it proves difficult to grasp the narrator's sudden maturity and newfound sense of responsibility, as Schlink neglects to reveal his transition from schoolboy to University student. As Part Two progresses, however, enigmas and unresolved issues from the first section start to be answered, and we become convinced by the narrator's detective-style investigation in establishing a morally correct judgement on the Holocaust crimes he now feels inextricably linked to.
Schlink can be credited with blurring the boundaries of Holocaust responsibility, whilst controversially humanizing the perpetrators of these atrocities. At times the level of understanding evoked by Schlink for a convicted criminal may seem unsettling, and we question whether our sympathy is misplaced. It is this moral dilemma, however, which allows us to understand the narrator's own predicament. The heart-wrenching ending fuels the power of Schlink's message, ensuring that the issues raised by `Der Vorleser' cannot be eradicated from our conscience.