The Missus read this one for her book club, and – based on my ongoing interest in WWII Germany and the psychological post-war aftermath its citizens were subject to – she suggested I read it. I’m glad I did.
Imagine that your country has just been involved in a war of extreme moral dubiousness, that it's over now, and you and your fellow citizens are trying to sort out your roles in it, whether those roles have been active or passive, pro or con. Further, imagine that the world wants to hold your country’s citizens accountable for the acts of your nation’s political and military sins during that war, that such demand for accountability should be passed on, generation after generation.
This is the all-too-German dilemma that Schlink takes on in his book. How he accomplishes this in The Reader is a masterwork of literary imagination.
First, you should know that Schlink was born into this German post-WWII generation, that he's no stranger to legal ethics. He’s a professor of law at the University of Berlin and has been a long-time sitting judge.
His story here is a parable of human strength and weakness set against a post-WWII background. A young boy of postwar Germany, Michael Berg, meets a woman, Hanna Schmitz, who is twice his age. She draws him into a years-long sexual affair. Both seem to benefit in extra-sexual ways that Schlink carefully exposes as his brief story turns.
The affair might have gone on interminably, but Hanna mysteriously disappears.
Years pass. Michael, a law student, happens to sit in on the trial of several women who have been guards at Auschwitz, these women now accused of crimes against the concentration camp’s inmates. Michael, in the throes of fear and confusion, watches as his former lover begins to admit to the charges, even taking the blame for acts she couldn’t have committed. Part of him wants to help her, but he simply can’t – he understands in a way not yet revealed to the reader that she’s trying to atone for taking the job at Auschwitz in the first place, for failing to save women prisoners who perish in an Allied firebombing, for – well – a host of implied social sins born of her role as a prison guard.
Michael empathizes with her more and more, despite his understanding of the secret behind her actions. Still, he can’t bring himself to intercede on her behalf. He does, however, contact her continually during her years in prison: he reads books onto tape for her, year after year.
Schlink orchestrates a worthy end to the story, and an emotional denouement. But the book's conclusion is beside the point he wants to make. The Reader's true impact is bound up in the events of Hanna's life – and particularly in Michael's reaction to them as they're revealed. Schlink seems to hope that, after turning the book’s final page, the reader will ponder these questions:
• Was Michael culpable in not coming to Hanna’s aid in court?
• Did his inability to act on her behalf make him a partner in her seemingly poor judgment, during and after the war?
• Were his actions in support of Hanna following her incarceration enough to atone for his inability to come to her aid during the trial?
Many want to continue holding German citizens accountable for the actions of those alive during the war, for the policies of the Nazi party, for not risking everything to undermine Hitler’s regime. And these many continue to sneer, not only at those who bought into the Nazi line and acted in small or large ways to carry out Nazi policy, but at those who were simply there, those who may have wrung their hands, muttering “What can I do?” In essence, these post-war accusers want to hold accountable those caught up in that time’s cognitive dissonance, as William Shirer in his great book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich has tacitly put it.
Schlink’s artful parable makes clear that much of this urge to long-term blame is misplaced, many WWII Germans simply acting according to the dictates of characteristic human weaknesses, something all of us are likely to fall prey to under similar conditions.
Besides Schlink’s skill in posing such a masterful story, one has to compliment him on his writerly technique. He inverts sexual roles with Michael and Hanna in postmodern fashion, allowing Hanna to play much of the male role in their affair. He toys with memory throughout, depicting by implication how memory can be selective, how even its seeming clarity can be called into question.
The intent in Schlink's book (and I won’t go into detail) is in how even the most clearly documented history can be held hostage to ambiguity, how evil and goodness under such historical conditions become different sides of the same coin.
And there seems to be a larger point underlying Schlink's tale: each of us bears the burden of both good and evil in all we do.