Sometime I think that dealing with the Nazi past was not the reason for the generational conflict that drove the student movement, but merely the form it took. Parental expectations, from which every generation must free itself, were nullified by the fact that these parents had failed to measure up during the Third Reich, or after it ended. How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them – how could they have anything to say to their children? But on the other hand, the Nazi past was an issue even for children who couldn’t accuse their parents of anything, or didn’t want to. For them coming to grips with the Nazi past was not merely the form taken by a generational conflict, it was the issue itself.
How does one accept the fact that one’s loved ones may have committed grievous wrongs? How do you react when the woman whom you have loved comes in front of you as a monster? How does one move on when one has inherited a history of sin and guilt?
If this review has begun with questions, it is because Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader poses one question after another for the reader. Schlink’s dwells into an area very few writers have sought to explore: The Nazi past of Germany. Writers tend to avoid such uncomfortable issues, issues which may bring up the past in all its ugly details. But Schlink poses the questions regarding those years of Germany, when, fed on the rhetoric of the Master Race and Aryan Supremacy, ordinary Germans either applauded or turned a blind eye to the things happening to their Jewish neighbours and friends.
The story is about a young boy Michael Berg who has an intense love affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz, during his teenage years. Their love making is interspersed with discussions of books that Michael reads out to Hanna. The woman is a mystery and Berg always has the feeling that she doesn’t reveal everything to him. Then one fine day Hanna disappears. Young Berg grows up – and as a law student is attending a case against former Nazis – only to recognise Hanna in that line-up of criminals. Her crimes are horrific and Berg is caught between the memories of the woman whom he had loved and the reality of the woman who now stands before him as an accused.
As the case progresses, Berg realises that the answers that he wants from Hanna, in fact, from his country itself, can never be a simplistic Yes/ No kind of thing. In one of the most perceptive passages of the entire book, Hanna counter-questions the judge who asked her why she had committed certain acts. Hanna is bewildered because she saw herself as just carrying out certain orders.
“I …I mean…so what would you have done?” Hanna meant it as a serious question….
“There are matters one simply cannot get drawn into, that one must distance oneself from, if the price is not life and limb.”
Perhaps this would have been all right if he had said the same thing, but referred directly to Hanna or himself. Talking about ‘one’ must and must not at and what it costs did not do justice to the seriousness of Hanna’s question. She had wanted to know what she should have done in her particular situation, not that there are things that are not done. The judge’s answer came across as helpless and pathetic. Everyone felt it. They reacted with sighs of disappointment and stared in amazement at Hanna, who had more or less won the exchange.
The book thus provides no answers as such. There is just a quest for answers and an attempt to understand the past. If Hanna represents Germany which failed to ‘read’ the signs than is her ultimate fate the only way forward for the new generation? As Michael says at one point:
I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks – understanding and condemnation. but it was impossible to do both.
Besides these issues of moral dilemma, there is also sheer poetry in certain passages. Sample this poignant reflection:
But there was so much energy in me, such belief that one day I’d be handsome and clever and superior and admired, such anticipation when I met new people and new situations. Is that what makes me sad? the eagerness and belief that filled me then and exacted a pledge from life that life could never fulfill? Sometimes I see the same eagerness and belief in the faces of children and teenagers and the sight brings back the same sadness I feel in remembering myself. Is this what sadness is all about? Is it what comes over us when beautiful memories shatter in hindsight because the remembered happiness fed not just on actual circumstances but on a promise that was not kept.
The book is not an easy or quick read. There are many instances that will make you take a pause and ponder over your own responses to certain issues. This was the aspect of the novel that I enjoyed the most and the one that made me overlook what I don’t enjoy reading: descriptions of an underage youngster involved in a torrid love affair with a mature adult. It might have been necessary for the plot but certain descriptive scenes were uncalled for.
First Line: When I was fifteen, I got Hepatitis.
Title: The Reader
Author: Bernhard Schlink
Original Title: Der Vorleser
Original Language: German
Translator: Carol Brown Janeway
Publication Details: London: Phoenix, 2008
First Published: 1995
Trivia: The book was made into a movie in 2008 and was much in
the news for the lead actress, Kate Winslet, winning a
number of awards for her portrayal of Hanna.
The book is available on the net. I borrowed it from Delhi Public Library, Vinoba Puri. [N SCH]
Books with similar theme(s):
Read and Reviewed as part of the German Literature Month.
Submitted for the following Challenges.
Mystery and Suspense