The Reader by Bernhard Schlink – an 'Off the Shelf' book review with travel commentary

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway, Phoenix, 1997, 9780753804704 (Aus, US

The Reader was experienced traveling by train through Europe, and recalled when faced with the ‘Topography of Terror’ monument in Berlin (the site of the SS headquarters), and Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam. It is a coming of age story simply told. Michael becomes involved with an older woman, the tram conductor Hanna. He is later asked to attend the trial of female guards from Cracow, the concentration camp, during his law studies. Michael is ‘the reader’ as he reads aloud to Hanna throughout their relationship, and later on, when he is still struggling with the possibility of her guilt. The novel is not particularly striking, or powerful. It doesn’t sensationalise love, sexuality, war, or the crimes of the Nazis. But its quiet nature does give it a certain resonance, where questions are posed during a life inexplicably tied in with larger events, issues, and the responsibilities of being human. Are we driven innately by desires, by evolution, in war and in the bedroom? Or are we controlled by the expectations of society in our context?

The novel is not ultimately fulfilling, but then, can one ever be fulfilled when faced with the subject of war, particularly the Holocaust? Schlink comes from a generation of Germans who were witness to their parents’ part in a collective and national guilt. These themes are reflected in the awkwardness of Michael’s latent feelings for Hanna. The book is a valuable one for the collection of anyone interested in this part of history. The Reader, however, doesn’t have the power of The Diary of Anne Frank where one girl’s experience gives a voice to the murdered masses.

One comfort for this literary-minded traveler was school groups encountered on those visits to both the ‘Topography of Terror’ and Anne Frank’s House. If anyone fears that history and education are being snowed under by materialism and technology, you had only to hear the intelligent lines of questioning from these children. One young boy took out his earphones to tell the teacher he just couldn’t believe the extent that human beings would go to in order to mass murder others. His eyes were wide, and it seemed he was experiencing a little jolt of awakening. It’s only the persistence of history that can help us avoid the crimes of the past, and to teach the horrors of war. We may only make room for new mistakes but the possibility of correction, progress, and improvement is there. The Reader is a satisfactory novel but works better as an emotional and quiet history, accessibly presented. 

One thought on “The Reader by Bernhard Schlink – an 'Off the Shelf' book review with travel commentary

  1. the book as such didn’t impress me all that much at the time, but I do recall that it caused quite a splash in that it appeared to explain (and thus possibly to excuse) this one person’s contribution to the holocaust. I think by now (as other books about this are being debated), we are much more aware of the fact that much of it was just social pressure — people did what they did and put their conscience aside, because everybody else seemed to be doing it as well, so it had to be ok.

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