The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway.
The story of The Reader is told in three parts in the first person by Michael Berg, who is a fifteen year old living in a city in Germany in the late 1950’s during the first section. Hanna Schmitz, the other main character in The Reader, calls the narrator ‘kid.’
The story starts with Michael becoming ill and vomiting in the street. An unknown woman cleans him up and accompanies him home. When Michael recovers from his illness, which turned out to be hepatitis, he returns to thank the woman, Frau Schmitz, at his mother’s request with flowers.
As Michael is about to leave Frau Schmitz’s apartment, she asks him to wait while she changes her clothes to go out. When she catches him watching her dress through the slightly open door, he runs away in shame.
Predictably, fifteen year old Michael can not get the images of Frau Schmitz in her petticoat and garter belt out of his head. He returns to her flat in and he and Hanna, who is a 36 years old tram conductor, start a physical relationship. She guesses his age at seventeen and he doesn’t tell her otherwise.
Hanna dominates their relationship and is often physically and verbally abusive to Michael. He reacts to Hanna’s cruelty by begging her forgiveness, usually for things he hasn’t done. Hanna’s disappointment in Michael telling her he was neglecting his schoolwork to be with her, causes him to try to win her approval by working hard to catch up on what he missed during his illness. Eventually, their relationship evolves into a pattern of bathing together, followed by sexual relations, then Michael reading classic literature aloud to Hanna.
One day, Hanna disappears from her flat. Michael realises she has left the city, but doesn’t know why she left. Six years later he goes to university to study law and as part of his studies, attends the war trial of a group of female SS guards, who were guarding a camp near Auschwitz when the 300 Jewish women occupying the camp burned to death in an accidental fire. Hanna is one of the guards on trial.
During the trial, Michael realises Hanna is illiterate. She accepts sole responsibility for the 300 deaths rather than have anyone realise she cannot read and is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Michaels marries, has a child and divorces. Over the next 20 years, he records himself reading literature aloud and sends the tapes to Hanna. He never responds to the letters she sends to him after she learns to write in prison.
Neither Hanna nor Michael are very sympathetic characters, but regardless of this, it came as a shock to learn during the course of the book that Hanna had been part of the SS. I pitied her, which seems strange when you learn she did, because although she is a victim of her circumstances in the book, there were so many other victims who died as a direct consequence of her actions, or lack of. The other victims are much more deserving of pity than Hanna, but she is the character who the reader has come to know. During her trial, Hanna asks the judge what he would have done in her situation, a question he cannot answer either.
Michael is also a character to feel sorry for, as he spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with his love for someone who has turned out to be a war criminal, and searching for women who remind him in some way of Hanna. Michael is also representative of his generation, in that his parents lived through the war, either blamelessly or not, but he and his peers who were only children are blameless.
The English translation of The Reader is beautifully written and the book must be even more wonderful in German. The Reader feels like an ‘important’ book, one that will be remembered and discussed for years to come.