Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader examines adolescence, pubescence and sexuality while questioning what it means to be a grandchild of Nazi Germany. What should they feel towards elders who went along with or participated in the Nazi regime. What responsibility should they place on parents who were relatively powerless and did nothing. Are justice and assigning blame the same thing?  

The Reader is not concerned with answering these questions as much as it is with pointing out the complexity of the situation made more complex by the protagonist’s teenage love affair with a strange women twice his age with a murky past.

In the first part, the protagonist, Michael, is sexually assaulted but goes back for more. Calling it a love affair is misleading. It’s infatuation to the extreme. The second book revolves around the woman’s trial for alleged war crimes. The “twist” is that she is illiterate and had this been publicly known would have exonerated her. Who would go to prison for life rather than admit they can’t read? Totally unbelievable for me but then again I’ve had the luxury of an education. The third part continues with Michael’s selfish introspection on the the woman’s importance to him and how her absence is why he never had a stable relationship...whine, whine, whine. Slightly more thoughts on the role of his generation towards their parents.’ Dull writing screwed this book over. If the prose had been beautiful in German it did not translate well.

What are we to take away from The Reader? Michael’s selfishness and moral misgivings prevent him from forgiving the woman enough to genuinely demonstrate his love for her. He makes it clear there will always be a barrier separating them - one he feels neither he nor anyone else can remove. Is this supposed to be symbolic of the divide between generations? Any thoughts? 

Another thing that struck me is the lack of forgiveness in this novel. Blame and punishment are doled out. Regrets are voiced. But not much forgiveness. How can one who is wronged heal if he cannot forgive? How can one who has wronged another be changed if they never ask for forgiveness? Saying "I'm sorry" is easy. Saying, "Will you please forgive me" is hard. It puts oneself at the mercy of another. Does Hanna, the woman, ever really ask for forgiveness? Does she ever receive forgiveness? 

Publisher: Vintage, 2008     Pages: 218
Rating: 2.5 Stars                 Source: IC Public Library


  1. That's too bad you didn't like it better. I loved it when I read it, but that was more than 10 years ago. I wonder if I'd like it as much now. Also I think I read it all in one day which can make me a little less critical as I get completely sucked into a story read that way.

  2. I read this recently but I haven't wrote it up for my blog yet but although I didn't love it I did like it more than you did.

    I found it complex but with a strong point that there are some things which you could never atone for.

  3. Jessica - I'll be keeping an eye our for your review! I guess I was looking for the forgiveness factor. Atonement is quite different from forgiveness. Like you said, some things can never be made up. But we can still forgive those who have wronged us even if they don't ask for it, even if they can't repay for what they have taken. Without forgiveness hearts grow bitter and defunct. This is totally what I saw happening in the story, anyways.