Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Reader

After reading Homecoming last week, I picked up Bernhard Schlink’s more famous (i.e., Oprah-endorsed) novel The Reader. Reader is clearly a precursor to Homecoming, particularly in its discussion of Schlink’s seemingly-favorite story, The Odyssey.

The novel’s plot is fairly straightforward. Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg has a brief affair with Hanna Schmitz, 21 years his senior. Years later, they are reunited when Hanna is tried for Nazi war crimes.

Although the story’s premise is interesting (and rather titillating), the moral questions Michael raises are the real substance of the novel. He only briefly mentions the effects of his underage relationship with Hanna. Instead, he dwells on the effects of and responsibility for Nazism on second-generation Germans (and perhaps all humanity). A few passages from the novel better express these issues than I ever could:

  • “What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews?” (104).
  • “Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves in it, not just registering but supplementing and embellishing it” (148).
  • “I [Michael] wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. . . . I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both” (157).

Michael has no answers to the questions he raises—and rightfully so—but he does invite the reader to wrestle with these same issues.

1 comment:

notaconnoisseur said...

I recently watched, "Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg." I found it chilling. The reality of one group of people destroying another was clearly depicted. Also I found it haunting to know that both the US and Swedish governments and Wallenberg's own family made no effort to try to rescue him from prison in Russia - where he eventually died.