The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Tantalizer; Having won the Boston Book Review‘s Fisk Fiction Prize, and having heard from so many people who’ve either seen the movie or read the book, The Reader was a novella that was well worth stocking in my library.  An author whose name I wanted to add to my list. 

In post World War II Germany, a chance encounter entwines the lives of a young boy and a grown woman, both of whom are separated by a new generation of Germany and the Nazi Third Reich.  Fifteen year old Michael Berg is walking home from school one day, when, in a period of failing health, falls ill until a stranger (a bosom blonde named Hanna Schmitz) comes to his rescue and helps him in his weakening moment, even walking him back to his apartment safely.  Michael, under his mother’s urging, returns to her apartment once he is feeling well and brings her flowers.  With no prior expectation otherwise, they develop a physical relationship, one punctuated with inexplicable mood swings and dark behaviors by Hanna that both baffles and frustrates Michael.  Part of what bonds them in this relationship is that he reads to her.  Even during their hikes, walks through the woods, he is the one in charge of translating the maps that take them through their journeys.   Then one day, with no reason, she disappears from his life. 

Years later, Michael and Hanna meet, once again, under unique circumstances.  This time, he is a law student and  is enrolled in a course that is examining the Nazi war trials.  To his surprise, Hanna is one of the accused on trial in her role as an SS camp guard, answering to the court on the cruelty inflicted on its prisoners.  And though there is evidence that could absolve her, or at the very least, the extent of her involvement in these crimes, she refuses to speak up, believing that the truth is far more shameful than her perceived participation in the holocaust.  Michael, unbeknownst to anyone else, is aware of what Hanna is deliberately keeping from the court, and faces the dilemma of whether or not to expose this if only to save her from a more severe sentence.

Impressions; The story tests our unwavering committment to love those who’ve committed atrocities beyond our imaginings, and our willingness to continue to love them regardless.  It also explores a new generation of Germany, examining and condemning their predecessors for either their actions, or, just as damning, their willingness to look the other way.  One has to wonder, if the very same people who condemned the Third Reich Germany had lived in a time of its occurrence, if they would have followed suit as their ancestors.

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