The Reader is not, specifically, a book about the Holocaust. It is instead an examination of the attempts of the ‘second generation’ of Germans – the children born during the Third Reich – to come to terms with the legacy of the recent past, and the complicity of their parents, teachers and other adults in a system of great wrongdoing.
Part One of the book could stand alone as a novella, telling the story of a young man’s sexual initiation and sentimental education. The references to Romantic writers in this section almost echo the genre; all the tropes are there. The sense of ‘oneness’ Michael believes he achieves with Hanna is what allows the burden of guilt to fall so heavily upon him when he learns about her crimes. He mentions feeling something of a bystander during the student protests; it is comparatively straightforward to rebel against parents and authority figures, but how does one rebel against a lover?
Schlink places Michael in the eye of the storm of an emotional labyrinth. Shame is described as being passed down, as though having any ambiguous feelings about a perpetrator or accomplice to atrocity implicates the individual in their guilt. Hanna comes to represent Germany itself, and Michael’s struggle to reconcile his love for her with the truth of her actions corresponds with the struggle of his generation to feel any pride or trust in their country.
Hanna’s illiteracy has been the subject of much debate, with many critics asking whether it is somehow supposed to excuse her from the path she allowed her life to take as a young woman. Yet it is not meant to exonerate her; rather it works as a device to fully explore issues of culpability. When Michael realises her secret, he is the one to wrestle with the dilemma of whether or not to tell the judge at her trial. From a purely legal point of view it would be right for him to do so, as it is a pertinent fact. From a moral perspective, however, it is not nearly so simple. Thus the book also demonstrates how the law cannot always provide total satisfaction, and from this entanglement we are further shown the issues involved in passing retroactive judgement on crimes committed when, as horrific and unconscionable as they were, they were legal.
The Reader is a deceptively simple story in terms of length and structure, and very pleasant to read for its restraint and clarity of language. The painful moral and emotional questions it raises are, however, hard to shake off. We are accustomed to calling the Nazis ‘monsters’; but monsters are mythical. In truth, these were human beings. At Dachau there is a memorial with the words 'Never Again' emblazoned in a number of different languages; but genocide has happened again, and is happening now. Putting a human face to evil may be controversial, but it is vital, or how else is the world to truly learn the means to overcome it?
For anybody wishing to deepen their knowledge of the Third Reich, modern Germany or inter-generational guilt, this novel is a perfect starting point. It is not only a great German novel, but an important and wholly necessary contribution to contemporary literature.
“Schlink’s novel has a wonderful clarity of style that serves to emphasise the moral complexity of its subject matter” (DAILY TELEGRAPH)
“The Reader cannot be ignored. It challenges core definitions of good and evil...The Reader brings us face to face with how little we know about the people around us” (Norman Lebrecht EVENING STANDARD)
“A powerful book, it lingers in the mind” (OXFORD TIMES)
“A profound and deeply moving examination of what drives perfectly ordinary people to do the most appalling things..hard to put down” (YORK PRESS)
“A hauntingly beautiful read” (SUFFOLK FREE PRESS)
“This mesmerising novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of post-war Germany” (WESTERN MORNING NEWS)
“A tender, horrifying novel that shows blazingly well how the Holocaust should be dealt with in fiction” (MATURE TIMES)
"The novel that more than any other built a bridge between postwar Germany's soul-searching examination of the Third Reich and its aftermath" (BOYD TONKIN)