Long before Hollywood set its sights on The Reader, it had already attracted much attention when it was first published in 1995. The Reader or Der Vorleser (“one who reads aloud") by Bernhard Schlink was the first German book to hit the NY Times Best seller list and was heaped with much critical praise in Germany. The story begins when 15 year old Michael Berg falls ill with hepatitis and is helped by the then 36 year old Hanna. After his recovery he returns to thank her and they embark on a passionate affair. Later on she disappears mysteriously from his life. He meets her again when he attends the trial of several women, including Hanna for war crimes during WWII.
In framing the story against the WWII and its aftermath, Schlink poses one of the most difficult questions –what would you do if the person you love is guilty of doing horrific things? There are no easy or definite answers to such a question and it is one that Michael grapples with all his life. And in posing this question, Schlink doesn’t limit the question to the crime to which Hanna is accused of and later incarcerated for. He poses this question to the generation that was present during the war. “Our parents had played a variety of roles in the Third Reich. Several among our fathers had been in the war, two or three of them as officers of the Wehrmacht and one as an officer of the Waffren SS. Some of them held positions as in the judiciary or the local government. We all condemned our parents even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.” And if this is the case, what should the second generation (the children and their children) do with the knowledge of such crime? Do they stop loving the person? Or are they too condemned because they continue to love this same person?
This novel is not by any means an easy read. But I can't recommend it enough to other people. Schlink doesn’t provide easy answers neither for his character nor for us readers. What he has done is to write his novel with great sensitivity and insight that allows for much reflection. The objective is not so much to assign guilt or blame to specific people but to make us understand that there are some crimes especially those born out of hatred and prejudice that transcend the specific perpetrators. And while there aren’t any answers, there is room for the possibility of redemption and even love. In the end, this is perhaps the great lesson to be learned.