Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Reader - read
Examinando las escrituras diariamente. Accessed 050609.

The Reader

Keywords: Reading and listening, guilt, avoidance, self-knowledge, intimacy and avoidance, honesty, suffering, recognition, atrocities, Holocaust or Shoah.

Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink is the novel that was filmed recently, with Kate Winslet as the tram ticket collector with whom the narrator falls in love and has a brief, passionate affair that shapes his whole life.
A chance encounter in the street, while 15-year old Michael is recovering from jaundice, leads to the affair that lasts for a Summer, before ending with Hanna's abrupt unexplained departure from the town.
As a law student, he then follows her trial for complicity in an atrocity while a concentration camp guard at a feeder camp for Auschwitz. Frustrated, he watches her inability to help her own cause by her bluntly honest defence of what she did while a guard - what else could she do? She even asks the trial judge at one point, 'What would you have done' (the judge makes a general moral statement, but doesn't answer the question). As the trial progresses, the other accused ex-guards are only to happy to shift the blame to Hanna, though just as guilty themselves.
The crux of the novel: understanding our actions, how they affect others ... Hanna is illiterate. This emerges during and after the trial. Hence her need for Michael to read literature to her, just as she asked girls in the camp too before they were sent off to Auschwitz and death. Hence her sudden change of jobs - when promotion beckons, she disappears rather than face the humiliation of having her illiteracy revealed.
Imprisoned for life - 18 years in the end, though she is badly aged by the experience - she listens to tapes recorded by Michael which he posts to her, though he sends her no letters. She slowly writes to him, struggling and succeeding to master literacy.
How much does this matter? Jewish women and children were trapped in a church guarded by Hanna and her colleagues who did nothing to let them out - it was bombed, the spire fell in, fire spread and all but two prisoners died.
The whole mentality of following orders, maintaining order, and simply not understanding what was wrong - this is shown all too clearly. Making scapegoats too - were these trials designed to make other Germans feel less guilty?
The two survivors of the atrocity were a mother and daughter. After the shock of Hanna's suicide the day she is due to leave prison - and be collected by Michael who is her only contact in the outside world - Michael visits the daughter in the USA, who cannot accept Hanna's remaining money from her will, but points to finding a charity. Accepting the money would mean offering absolution - she cannot do this.
There is no escape from awful deeds and from complicity - Hanna's tragedy is that in trying to escape the handicap and social shame of illiteracy - by leaving Siemens to become a camp guard - she walks into the crime of active involvement in the horrors of the Nazi holocaust.
Her personal shame blinds her to the national evil of the Shoah.
Her passionate, cold, unsatisfactory but longing relationship with Michael haunts his whole life - he avoids intimacy again, has a broken marriage and other short relationships, unable to allow women to be really close and to hurt and dominate him as did Hanna.
This sounds a heavy book, but it is subtly and beautifully written, with the right balance of compassion and distance, empathy and objectivity.
Life isn't simple, we are complicit by our involvement. But some things are wrong beyond any doubt or challenge.


  1. It is strange that perhaps I did not see the abuse when I first read the book, about going out with someone much younger. To me, on my first reading it was about the schock of what some people have done, in those time. Perhaps because I'm French and you, from time to time, get nasty surprises about people having had a bad past during the occupation years.
    I liked the movie a little bit but got terribly upset with the fact it was in English and that they were speaking with a slight "German" accent... I found it insulting... as if German was English spoken with a slight accent..

  2. Yes, the fake accents and language were a definite downer in the film, not necessary at all.
    The acting (Kate Winslet was impressive) and historical setting made up otherwise, though I got fed up with Ralph Fiennes in the second half. It made me read the book though (Ulrike bought it! :) ) which has to be a good thing.