The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, Germany, 1995 (English translation 1997)

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, Germany, 1995 (English translation 1997)

When fifteen-year-old Michael Berg inadvertently meets Hanna Schmitz (a tram conductress), who is twice his age, he falls madly in love with her. During the months that follow, while balancing schoolwork and the expectations of his family (who are unaware of the relationship), he regularly meets with Hanna at her flat. After seduction and sex, he reads to her: Emilia Galotti, War and Peace, Schiller, Eichendorff, Kant… Then suddenly, without explanation, she disappears.

When Michael next sees Hanna, it is in very different circumstances: he is studying law, and Hanna, together with a number of other women, is on trial for a dreadful crime that took place in 1944 when she was an SS guard. Shaken to see her again in such circumstances, he follows the trial minutely, and when it becomes obvious that her guilt hinges on her ability to be able to write, he is confused that she does not reveal the truth about her illiteracy, a truth that could save her from a long prison sentence. When, in exasperation, he mentions the case to his father, his father replies: ‘… I unfortunately see no justification for setting other people’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves’.

Photo of Berhard Schlink is from

Schlink says that the book is about the disconnection, or the divide, between the generation of the Nazis and the following generation, which is his generation and Michael Berg’s generation. It is a story about guilt and how it is handed on. But it is also a story about betrayal – of ourselves and of others – and the part that memory plays in our lives. Schlink does not seek to excuse or explain: he simply lays out the facts. As he writes: ‘The geological layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as a matter that had been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive.’ The guilt spreads out in all directions, both backwards and forwards and to the right and to the left.

A film, based on the book, was released 2008

This is not a Holocaust book, even if the Holocaust is very much part of it. Schlink’s focus is not about condemning the past – so many other books have already done that – instead, Schlink focuses on how people from both those generations (past and present) cope with the guilt and the pain of what happened and how this, in turn, can change them irrevocably.

Hanna, who can be seen as representing the guilt of Nazi Germany, is an ordinary, uneducated person. At the trial, wanting to do the right thing, she is unquestionably honest in contrast to her co-defendants who are searching for the smallest loophole – any loophole – that may reduce their sentence. At one point she asks the judge; ‘So should I have … should I have not … should I not have signed up at Siemens?’. And, much later, ‘What would you have done?’

A Berlin tram from 1958 from

This is a beautifully written, sad and exceptionally thought-provoking book that will remain with the reader, on some level, long after the last page has been read and the book closed.

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