Have you ever lied about yourself to hide an embarrassing truth, even if it cost you your freedom?
It is a simple question, but the answer is much more difficult to comprehend in Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader” – part of Oprah’s Book Club selection.
The book tells the story of a teenage German boy who develops a torrid love affair with a much older woman.
It started innocently enough: on his way home from school Michael Berg is suddenly beset by fits of nausea and vomits at the side of the road. Out of nowhere Hanna Schmitz comes to his aid, cleans him up, and sends him on his way. The next day he pays her a visit, to give thanks with a bouquet of flowers. He was strangely drawn to her and no doubt she felt the same considering what happened soon after.
Most of their days are spent in the privacy of Hanna’s apartment, and Michael reading countless of books to her. At first he found it strange it brought immense joy to her, but as their relationship evolved it became the highlight of his day.
But then, just as they are evolving in their relationship beyond the physical, it ends abruptly. Hanna leaves Michael, with no trace for him to pick up on. It took months for him to cope with the sudden loss, but he moved on nonetheless.
Years later, while studying to become a lawyer, he meets Hanna again although in very different circumstances. It was in a courtroom, and she is on trial. She is accused of her role at various concentration camps as an SS guard, for war crimes committed in Nazi-occupied Germany.
Observing Hanna’s behaviour throughout the proceedings, it quickly dawned on Michael that she cannot read or write. Rather than face humiliation of exposing her illiteracy, Hanna willingly admits to writing the report on what happened at the concentration camps rather than submit a sample of her handwriting to prove her innocence, and be given a less severe prison term.
Knowing what he knew, Michael felt a roller-coaster of emotions: anger for having loved a woman who committed monstrous crimes, and guilt for refusing to come to her rescue. The third act of the book unfolds in spectacular manner, and ends on a somber note.
The relationship between these two characters is depicted in such a way that is both loving and tender despite the difference in age. The fact that the older party is a woman might draw some raised eyebrows, and yet I am sure most people will think it is not a voice for concern if it had been an older man/younger woman relationship.
At a little over 200 pages, the author packed each chapter with intense emotional wallop that you will be riveted in hours of reading. This is the kind of book that begs to be read more than once.
The book was adapted to the silver screen in 2008. It starred Kate Winslet in an Academy-Award winning performance as Hanna Schmitz. Newcomer German actor David Cross played the young Michael Berg, and Ralph Fiennes played the older.