Bernard Schlink


The Reader

(Phoenix; 1997)

Novel (Holocaust)

A German law professor (the book’s a translation) tries to work through the fact that his parents’ generation were in varying degrees culpable for the holocaust. He does this in an enormously contemporary way: the values of the 1st person narrator are assumed; the atrocities are not central or climactic - rather the theme is how should he respond to and feel about them.

He sets it up in a way I found offensive, but it reflects his (my?) generation’s values: he starts with an affair between the then fifteen year old narrator and a thirty six year old woman - my discomfort coming from the blithely amoral acceptance of this. As with the lesbian relationship in the film Love & Other Catastrophes, there is no ‘issue’, it’s just background not worth comment. Even when Hollywood preaches to us with their mandatory saintlike homosexuals (eg. As Good as it Gets, My Best Friend’s Wedding, or England’s Four Weddings & A Funeral), it’s not nearly as confronting - at least they feel they have to try for some justification.

Whatever, the sexual relationship is secondary - it’s mainly a way of setting up a relationship between the narrator and a character who he finds out years later (after the relationship ended) was a guard at Auschwitz. It could just as easily have been some other non-confronting relationship to make readers like me comfortable.

He doesn’t milk the situation for emotion and shouted dialogue. Rather the book is characterised by the measured, detached tone of the narrator. He doesn’t linger on the atrocities, but we do find out that the ex-guard/lover, Hannah, is being tried mainly for an incident where after a bombing raid hundreds of prisoners were burnt to death because the guards wouldn’t open the doors of their burning building. Hannah alone of the accused is honest/foolish enough to say they didn’t because in the confusion when many of the military escort had been killed they were afraid they couldn’t have maintained order. A key voice in the text points out that the attitude of so many of those involved was not so much malice or dealing with moral dilemmas, but just doing a job. The prisoners were dehumanised.

The question he’s exploring is what attitude he (we) should have to the guards. Rather than just assuming outrage, goodies/baddies, he’s honest about things like a trip to visit the site of a Concentration Camp, where he tries to imagine what went on and be horrified, but is still left passive, still viewing all this from a distance. Even some of the awful photos the allies took became clichés, or were out of print.

While watching her trial - and we are the jury too - he writes:

I 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. (p. 156)


We can relate to his detachment, his aloofness from events he feels should move him more. And also to the dilemma above: we know we should try to see ‘both sides’, that things are not simple - yet this crime is too awful.


The style must be easy enough to read - I got through the whole book in one night, about 3 hours. I can’t deny, like all the critically acclaimed books A.’s been lending me lately (except Waiting), that it’s well written, thoughtful, professional. But it’s just not something that really grabs me. Spoilt, I suppose. Maybe I’ve been over doing my ‘serious novel’ quota so was less up for it.


December 2001