I came to Bernard Schlink's novel, The Reader, as a result of the publicity surrounding the film of the book. The story is told by Michael Berg who looks back at a relationship he had at 15 with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. It is a story of unrequited love set in Germany in the context of the post second world war years. Underlying the pains of a love story are huge universal moral themes such as guilt, betrayal, whether or not the burden of responsibility can and should be passed from one generation to another, the issue of being responsible for ones action and the willingness to be held accountable.
It is reasonable to say that The Reader is a novel of ideas. Along with the themes mentioned above, another area of exploration is memory. For Michael his personal identity is built on memory. I found this issue very engaging as I was reminded that it is the joys and pains of memory that at least partly shapes our character.
But such esoteric ideas, if one could call them that, should not deter prospective readers. The Reader is a very accessible novel. On one level it is a story of childhood that charmed and drew me into its world. Yet in another way it is an erotic story that captures the spirit of many teenage boys who desire the older woman - the forbidden fruit. Michael gets the forbidden fruit but at a cost - namely unrequited love and anguish into adulthood that strained further relationships he had with women.
The sombre tone of the narrative fits very well with Michael's anguish. But the tone is sombre not only for that reason, not only because of the illicit liaison, not only because of Hanna's mysterious pasts but more because of Michael's betrayal of Hanna in more than one way. Part of Schlink's great achievement is that through these issues he manages to shed light on how we sometimes bear the burden of guilt. It's an acknowledgement of how we allow ourselves to be constrained by the prevailing social circumstances, and later suffer because of it.
Schlink draws a complex character in Hanna. She is dowdy, moody and unpredictable to some extent. But he also does something more with Hanna. Through her inaction that is alleged to have led to the burning to death of a number of Jews in a church, Schlink makes Hanna a symbol that represents the mob and its heard instinct. In the socio-political milieu she finds herself in, like most of her peers Hanna easily comes to believe that it is her responsibility to carry out duties requested of her. She is certainly no existentialist; she cannot think outside the box and do what is right. Through Hanna Schlink shakes us out of our own complacency and confronts us with the question what would you have done in similar circumstances.
A word about the translation, at times it feels clumsy. For example, after planning a bicycle holiday, part of Michael's thoughts is translated thus: "Strange that this idea and suggesting it were not embarrassing to me" However, overall, although I don't read German, I sense that the translator, Carol Brown Janeway, captured the tone of the original novel - full praise to her.
This is a very short novel that could be quickly read through. However, I urge the prospective reader not to rush through it. Because it is cram-full of ideas, it commands a slow and careful read. I found myself re-reading passage simply to make sure I had grasped the idea being explored.
For all its profound philosophical questions and huge universal themes, The Reader never deviates from being a gripping story. I was emotional stirred and intellectually stimulated by this novel. The fact that such a short novel had a huge impact on me it must be considered a tour de force.