Review: The Reader

22 08 2007

I’ve spent most of my day with Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.  I can’t say it is a book I enjoyed reading, but it was an important book to read.

I have an old, battered up copy that I purchased at a local library sale. There was an elastic round it when I bought it, holding all the pages in and there are creases where pages have been folded down and then turned back up by other readers or attentive librarians. I’ve re-creased those pages and several more in my reading for there was much that spoke to me in this text.

It didn’t read for me like most novels do. It seemed very much a conversation, as if Michael were speaking his text or his confession directly to me, and yet paradoxically there seemed some barrier or restraint there as well. I read very few works that have been translated into English – I can only think of this and Norwegian Wood – but I found this same sensation while reading both of them.

There was a great deal that I also connected with and recognized in terms of writing about trauma and dealing with trauma and the peculiar position of second generation or third generation inheritances of that trauma. Much of the second half of the novel seemed to mediate and almost philosophize about these issues, explicitly explaining the position as Michael considered it, while at other times backing away and reverting to more simplistic and effecting passages that suggest a lack of answers or resolution, while at the same time emphasizing that the only way is forward.  He also raised some interesting points about how the admittance of shame and guilt over crimes committed by those that have come before can lead to, as Schlink puts if, someone “parad[ing] one’s self-righteousness” (171), as if that break with the past and the denial of their crimes makes one superior.  I don’t feel that is the case with many who denounce the crimes of a previous generation, but it can occur and it is that blind spot, that inability to see the same potential that I find so dangerous.

I found Michael’s relationship with Hanna complex and as a reader I also felt my response to her quite complex as well. Michael makes clear that she was not guilty of everything she was accused of while working at the camps and that there is a more humane explanation of why she chose the girls she did to read to her and the end of the novel makes clear that learning to read – and therefore making the admission that prior to that she was illiterate – was an attempt to learn about the Holocaust and reconcile with what happened and her role in it. And yet for all of this I could not in any way excuse her actions – that was not my place. No matter what I learned of her and her history, I could not really sympathize with her. I could only wish for her that she had made different choices. If there was a moment when I felt myself feeling sympathy for her, I seemed to consciously stop myself and to also feel guilt for having that reaction. Because of that, one passage in particular struck me:

“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.” (157)

If we attempt to understand the position and the motivations and the actions of someone who commits a heinous crime, are we somehow diminishing what occurred?  But how can we prevent something like that crime from occurring again if no attempt is made to understand it?  It’s a challenging paradox and certainly those questions were on my mind throughout my reading and will stay very much with me.

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