The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink and translated by Carol Brown Janeway, is a remarkable book that manages to present a number of ethical and philosophical dilemmas without sacrificing plot or characterization. The first part of the book introduces us to Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz. Michael is fifteen when he meets the older Hanna. They start a relationship, partly, I suspect, because they are so isolated from everyone else and partly because they “get” each other. Because we get to see the relationship from its genesis, it doesn’t seem and strange and, well, illegal as it should. Michael and Hanna settle into a long term love affair with each other, until Hanna leaves.
In the second part of the book, more details are revealed and Schlink brings up some uncomfortable questions and situations. Hanna is accused of (and admits to) being a camp guard at an auxiliary camp at Auschwitz. She’s put on trial begins with a bunch of other former guards. Michael finds out about the trial because he was part of a group of law students who made a project of studying trials of former Nazis and Nazi officials. In one of the most civilized acts ever seen in history, these people were given trials to determine their responsibility. Even now, I have to admire the restraint it took to not execute the worst offenders. Further complicating the matter is the inadequacy of the law when the crime are so huge. Meanwhile, Michael asks himself (and us):
What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? (104*)
Michael is right and yet, we have to discuss the Holocaust, if only to keep the memory alive so that it never happens again.
Schlink is a remarkable writer, to ask such difficult and important questions in such a slim book. It would have been easy to let questions like these take over the book but Schlink shows us that, in spite of everything, life goes on, even for former camp guards. As I read the second part of the book, I kept thinking back to the strange love that Michael and Hanna had. Did Hanna deserve to have that love? And as the trial rolls along, I also had to wonder just how much guilt and responsibility Hanna bore for what happened on the death march from Auschwitz back towards Germany. I know she wasn’t innocent, but was the verdict actually just?
The Reader is unsettling. There’s more than enough here to trouble anyone’s ethics. To my way of thinking, making readers think and question and ponder even after the book is over is a sign of a really great book. This is a rare and meaningful book.
* 1997 Vintage International trade paperback edition.