I got a good deal on this book — $5 for a brand new, remaindered paperback with a pretty, minimalistic design from this lovely place. The Orion Publishing Group reissued twenty books with freshly designed covers to celebrate their 20th anniversary, so if you’re keen to have a set of classic, matching books, then you might check them out…
But onto the book. It was better than I expected, especially since I didn’t like the movie adaptation all that much, but still left me somewhat disappointed. I enjoyed part one the most, in which a 15-year-old German boy named Michael strikes up a sexually-charged relationship with Hanna Schmitz, several years his elder at age 36. Michael is slightly mature for his age; Hanna, energetic and capricious, so they make a good, if conflicted, match. It’s clear that Michael is narrating the story after several years of rumination and acquired wisdom, but the first section doesn’t have the pompous style that sometimes arises from past tense mode. As you can imagine, Michael is deeply affected after becoming severely enamored and involved with someone decades older, and lacks the experience to stand up to Hanna when she behaves unreasonably. However, despite the frenetic and fractured tone of their relationship, I still found myself rooting for Hanna and Michael. That alone, I think, marks a great accomplishment from Bernhard Schlink.
I was also surprised by how much I liked the writing style. The story is relayed in a direct and somewhat simple manner, with occasional, brief asides that enhance rather than detract from the main plot. One such aside is the observations Michael makes about his father’s demeanor towards his family:
Sometimes I had the feeling that all of us in his family were like pets to him. The dog you take for a walk, the cat you play with and that curls up in your lap, purring, to be stroked — you can be fond of them, you can even need them to a certain extent, and nonetheless the whole thing — buying pet food, cleaning up the cat box, and trips to the vet — is really too much. (p. 28)
I’ve seen a lot of people behave this way over the years, though I never found a way to articulate it. I think it’s especially risky for the primary provider of a family to unconsciously lapse into this kind of behaviour because of the close association between money and ownership in Western philosophy. Families are downgraded from social units to financial ones.
Bernhard Schlink is also quite good at capturing an adolescent boy’s perspective, which surprised me as I think that most people have a hard time remembering what it’s like to be young after a certain point. Michael is plagued the types of questions you’d expect to arise over the course of a complicated relationship characterized by a huge age difference between the two participants. But he also benefits from being sexually active with an older woman, especially in terms of confidence and bodily awareness. Although Michael raises and considers many important questions, he never overanalyzes or reaches concrete solutions.
Then, for seemingly no reason, Hanna disappears near the end of part one. Michael is devastated, but eventually learns to live with himself — or so he thinks. He pushes thoughts of their relationship to a dark corner in his mind, earnestly trying to forget.
It wasn’t that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you? (p. 86)
As luck would have it, Michael’s decision to pursue a law degree means that he encounters Hanna again, seven years later, as a student observer in a courtroom. Thus begins part two of this three-act novel. It turns out that Hanna was a Nazi and responsible for hundreds of lives lost at the concentration camp where she worked as a guard and during the subsequent death march. Hanna is unusually truthful, unlike the other defendants on trial for the same crimes, and quickly becomes cast as the instigator. She is pegged as the author of a report that describes the guards’ criminal activities in detail — and this is when Michael, a silent, stunned spectator, suddenly realizes that Hanna is illiterate. During their relationship, Hanna would ask Michael to read to her, anything and everything. Michael is horrified when he learns that Hanna selected girls at the concentration camp to read to her in exchange for lighter workloads or other special treatments. Although it means she will receive a harsher sentence, Hanna is too proud to admit that she cannot read, and therefore could not have written the damning report. Michael grapples with whether he should inform the judge and affect Hanna’s fate, but ultimately decides not to.
While Hanna is on trial for her Nazi crimes, so is Michael, and, by extension, the rest of Germany. Bernhard Schlink’s treatment of the post-WWII guilt in Germany, the generational divide and incredulousness with which children regarded the crimes of their parents and elders, is superb. Reflected in the fractured relationship between the naive, 15-year-old Michael and the uneducated, proud, and reticent 36-year-old Hanna is a huge chunk of the country’s collective residual guilt from the Holocaust. Can Michael be held accountable for Hanna’s sins, even though he knew nothing of her former life? How could he possibly have loved, and still love, someone capable of such brutality? Michael visits the concentration camp in an effort to understand, but does not find enlightenment:
At first I was embarrassed to wander home through the Alsatian villages looking for a restaurant where I could have lunch. But my awkwardness was not the result of real feeling, but of thinking about the way one is supposed to feel after visiting a concentration camp. (p. 154)
These ambiguities comprise the bulk of part two of this novel. At the end of the trial, Hanna is unsurprisingly sentenced to life in prison, and Michael again tries in vain to forget her.
Part three is where the book gets significantly weaker. I wish it had ended after part two; I found it unrealistic that Michael would allow a year-long relationship from his youth to ruin him emotionally for the rest of his life. Bernhard Schlink developed an apt metaphor for Germany’s post-WWII guilt, but eventually stretched it too far. It was all summed up a little too neatly, a little too predictably, a little too tragically. After all, moral ambivalence was the strongest aspect of the book, so was it really necessary to recount everything so thoroughly until the bitter end?
On the whole, I still recommend this book, especially since I think it’s significantly better than most books that become hugely popular. It’s thoughtful and well-written, but not groundbreaking, and makes for a calm read on a rainy day. Isn’t that odd, a calm novel about the memory of the Holocaust? But there it is.
Overall rating: 3.5/5 stars