Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The ReaderAs a 15-year-old boy in postwar Germany, Michael Berg had a passionate affair with a mysterious, guarded woman twice his age that ended suddenly when she disappeared. Years later, Michael sees her again -- when she is on trial for a terrible crime.

The original plan for this week was to read and review Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong but after a week of struggling through the first 30 pages I had to face the fact that for all the acclaim the book garnered Mongolian sheep herders were not going to hold my interest. The morning I decided it was time to move on a friend left a copy of The Reader on my desk at work and I dove in on my lunch break.
At first glance The Reader tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who has an affair with a woman in her thirties and how it affects him for the rest of his life. That is only the outer layer of the story though: as soon as you look deeper you see that more than anything it is about Germany after WW2, about shame and guilt, right and wrong, struggling with finding an identity for a generation that is coming to terms with the past and picking up the pieces. And it's not just my or some critic's opinion, Mr. Schlink tells us as much himself when Michael ponders his generation and its heritage, and tries to understand the past. Another reason that leads me to believe that this book is less about the relationship of Michael and Hanna and more about the German society after the war is that at no time does Michael ask in the book how could Hanna do what she did to him but there's plenty of times when he talks about how could the Germans allow the atrocities to happen, how could they not stand up to it all, how could they accept the former fascists back into society. It is as if he is more scarred by that than by having his whole life ruined by and eventually, in a way, devoted to a woman who didn't seem to care about the consequences of her actions.
One of the strongest features of this book is its elegantly spare, declarative prose. There are few explanations, just simple statements of facts that are offered to us without reservation. There are reflections on morality, humanity, right and wrong, and they too are so simple that they give the novel depth without rendering it unreadable. Yet as positively unflowery as the writing is the author manages to tell us exactly who his characters are, allows us to discover them gradually and without inflicting his own conclusions upon us, creates perfectly complete portraits with a few well-chosen words and well-placed sencentes.
There is a lot of story in a book that is barely two hundred pages long and since we only get Michael's side of it by no means does Mr. Schlink tell us all there is to tell. There is plenty to think about and I hope that if you haven't read this book that you will add it to your to-read list. It is most definitely worth a day or a weekend of your time.

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