When read this book and blogged on it recently, my obsession was with Germans and their literature coming to terms with the book’s overarching subject – Nazism. Since then, I’ve learned more about that literary thread, and have come across a new (to me) term: German Expressionism.
This sub-genre of German lit pre-dated Hitler and the wickedness he drew from the German psyche. In fact, it goes back to Kafka, perhaps farther. Essentially, it means that we (people, not merely readers) tend to become outwardly what we are in an inner sense. In perhaps simpler terms, this means that we approach the outer world subjectively – particularly though our unique fears – thus manifesting situations in our lives that allow our fears food and breath.
Had I known this when I read The Reader, I would have understood more about Hanna, the woman first-person narrator Michael read to and had an affair with. And I’d have had a better understanding of Schlink’s intent. If you faithful readers remember, Hanna was put on trial for war crimes because of her stint as a guard at Auschwitz.
Michael, who watched the proceedings, became appalled as Hanna’s confessed to crimes she could hardly have committed. And so did this reader.
Hanna’s secret, I’m sure you know by now, was that she had never learned to read. She managed in life, but she surely thought she’d always lived a lie. If the main tenet of German Expressionism depicted above does hold psychological water, she, like Kafka’s Gregor in his Metamorphosis, became troubled enough by her “secret” that she felt compelled to lance that seeming boil in an external way. And she knew full well that she’d be executed for her “crimes."
Maybe Schlink went to extremes to have Hanna feel compelled to death in this way, but no more so than many characters in German literature, including Kafka’s. Perhaps the only real contribution that Nazism made to the world was in creating situations during his regime that would cause such fear-based seeds of shame to bear inordinate fruit in Germany. Perhaps unwittingly, he added to German literature's Expressionistic demons sufficiently to allow citizens of later generations to stomp such fears into the dust, much as Hitler’s Wehrmacht ground Europe under the tracks of its tanks.