Conor Byrne looks at Bernhard Schlink’s profound and troubling novel…
In recent times, what has been termed ‘Holocaust fan fiction’ has become visibly popular. Books written by Holocaust survivors about their experiences are ubiquitous; while Anne Frank’s Diary and Schindler’s Ark remain widely read worldwide. Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, however, while exploring the theme of the Holocaust, is not an autobiographical narrative about experiences in a concentration camp, but rather uses the experiences of a female guard at Auschwitz to explore darker themes of guilt, responsibility and evil.
The book has become extremely successful, generating a film adaptation starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. Easy to read and short but gripping, the novel is written from the perspective of Michael Berg, an adolescent growing up in postwar Germany. Prone to illnesses, his incapacities provide the context for his random meeting with Hanna, a mysterious blonde woman living alone nearby. What begins as an unforeseeable encounter leads to a difficult and disturbing relationship, in which the thirty-something Hanna, to our eyes at least, takes advantage of the teenage Michael. Their relationship is sexual and entirely unequal because of Michael’s youth, his immaturity and his complete lack of knowledge about Hanna’s life – she is secretive and resists his frequent questions.
Above all, however, as the novel indicates, their relationship is characterised by books. Without giving away too much, we learn quickly that Hanna yearns to be read to, to enjoy literature, and therefore encourages Michael to read to her, usually the books he studies at school. Eventually, however, Hanna deserts Michael without warning and, emotionally scarred and confused, he is forced to get on with his life.
Years later, as a law student at university, Michael participates in the postwar trials of German war criminals who participated in the Holocaust, and is shocked to learn that Hanna is a defendant, as a prison guard at Auschwitz. He is more shocked, however, when an unthinkable fact about Hanna emerges, and subsequently explains their whole relationship… Dark, unsettling, yet very moving, this novel is excellent both in chronicling an unusual love affair and in conveying a sense of unease and horror which continues to be felt about guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust.
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