The Reader – Bernhard Schlink.
Usually when books have a really profound affect on me, I use a multitude of gifs to express how I feel. This book though, this needs me to take a more serious approach.
I used to work in a DVD shop, so although I’ve never seen the film, I did have a vague idea what this was about, which is probably a good thing seeing as my copy has no blurb, just a tonne of reviews instead. (I kind of hate it when that happens, I’m quite lazy, I want to know what I’m getting.) My knowledge of the story was that a young boy gets together with a much older woman and that their little love story is set in post war Germany. And, to an extent it is about that, but overall, it’s about much much more.
I mention at every opportunity that I get that I am a huge history nerd, especially when it comes to the state of the world around WW2, the politics and the fall out and the lead up to that war fascinates me because it happened in our life time, people that lived through it are still alive, they actually witnessed people doing obscene, inhumane things to each other. Some of the people that did those inhumane things or had parents/ grandparents that did them are alive right now and have to live with the fact that family members, people that they love behaved in such a manner, and that fascinates me. As a result, I generally love any kind of historical fiction that is set in that era, most of the books that come out of the UK are about evacuees or brave Tommys off fighting evil and all that sort of thing, so I kind of love it when I come across a book told from another point of view, and when I picked this up in the grand library sale, with the knowledge that it was set in post WW2 Germany, I was hoping for some kind of slant on the war, I got so much more than that.
A couple of years ago, my friend and I went backpacking around Poland because we knew absolutely nothing about Poland and where better to learn about a place than the place itself? What we found was that it’s a country steeped in history and that there was a whole side to WW2 that we had never been taught about. It was like hearing that everything you had ever believed to be true was a lie. I got the same feeling when reading this book, just when you think you know something, it turns out to be much worse than you imagined.
Of course, part of our Poland trip took us to Auschwitz and Birkenhau which are without doubt the single most eerie and disturbing places I have ever been. It’s pointless trying to describe it because unless you see it for yourself, you could never quite grasp the stillness and the oppressiveness that is the ruins of those camps. The sheer size of them alone is unbelievable without getting into the things they makes you feel. Having been there makes reading books like this all the more fascinating. Walking about the remains of gas chambers, seeing piles of suitcases and abandoned barracks and lost shoes made me adamant that I would rather die a traitor to my country and government than to ever inflict that level of suffering on another human being. But then I read this, then I saw Hanna’s story, she asks twice, “what would you have done?” and really, what would anyone have done in that situation?
There was a truly wonderful quote about the subject of concentration camps:
“…how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real. We knew the gate of Auschwitz with its inscription, the stacked wooden bunks, the piles of hair and glasses and suitcases; we knew the building that formed the entrance to Birkenau with the tower, the two wings and the entrance for the trains; and from Bergan-Belson the mountains of corpses found and photographed by the Allies at liberation. We were familiar with some of the testimony of the prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they were out of print. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around in it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves in it, not just registering but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into cliches.”
If that doesn’t make you want to shut down the internet right now and pick up this book then I don’t know what will.
The Reader is essentially a story about guilt, who deserves to feel it, what constitutes a crime. Our narrator Michael, is seduced as a fifteen year old school boy, weak and recovering from a serious illness by a much older woman named Hanna. The pair have a relationship that lasts several months, long enough for them to go on holiday together and for our young story teller to fall in love with her. Then, she mysteriously disappears, never to be seen again leaving Michael damaged in his future relationships, never quite over the older woman who he had fallen for. Then, years later, Michael, now training to be a lawyer sits in on a trial for Nazi war criminals, only to come face to face with none other than Hanna who is in the dock being tried for crimes against humanity that she committed whilst a guard at Auschwitz. Michael feels guilty for ever having loved someone capable of such behaviour, Hanna is of course, guilty for the mistreatment of thousands of imprisoned women. But that is, much like what I initially thought this story was about, a gross over simplification.
I’ve got to be honest, renting that film out to people and staring at the cover for months on end as it moved through the charts did not prepare me for what the book contained. The fourteen reviews in place of a blurb did not prepare me for it either. And reading this review won’t prepare you for it either.
You absolutely have to read this book.
You have to.
There is no two ways about it. This is incredible, there are very few books in the world that really cause me to sit and think, to question my motives and my morals, this book does just that. Quite simply, it’s brilliant.
I want to give it the Nick Fury Seal of approval, but again, I think that would undermine how truly amazing this is, so just imagine there’s a picture of a seal at the bottom of this.