The novel is divided into three parts. The first part of the book deals with an encounter between fifteen year old Michael Berg and the beautiful thirty-six year old Hanna Schmitz, an encounter which will mark Michael for life. While on his way home from school one day in post-war Germany, Michael becomes ill. He is helped out by Hanna and later he goes back to her home to thank her, eventually finding himself seduced by her. They become lovers and part of their intimacy comprises Michael reading aloud to Hanna. Then, one day, as suddenly as she appeared in his life, she disappears, leaving Michael devastated.
The second part of the book is set against the backdrop of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the mid-sixties, and we meet Michael again as a law student in a seminar that is focused on an exploration of the collective guilt of the German people. Michael embraces the opportunity, alongside others of his generation, to philosophically condemn the older generation for having sat silently by. Then, he is assigned to take notes on a trial of some camp guards.
To his amazement, one of the accused is his former lover Hanna. He sits through her trial, realising as he hears the evidence that she is not going to reveal a crucial piece of information that could possibly mitigate her complicity in the crimes with which she stands accused – the fact that she cannot read. (Is Hanna’s illiteracy perhaps an allegory for the moral illiteracy of her generation which allowed the Holocaust to happen?) Revealingly, Michael himself sits through the trial without releasing this crucial piece of evidence, which could perhaps have lessened Hanna’s sentencing his own inaction reflecting the inaction faced by his parents’ generation, blurring the lines of the moral divide that exists between the generations.
The third part of The Reader shows us how Michael’s law career, his marriage and his life are affected by his teenage affair with Hanna. It seems he cannot break free of this life-defining relationship. He divorces and never remarries. Finally, Michael reaches out to Hanna in prison, indirectly, through the use of the secret they share of her illiteracy. He tapes readings of books and sends them to her while she is in prison. Yet, he never personalises their contact. The novel ends with Hanna’s release from prison, her suicide and Michael’s trip to New York to fulfill Hanna’s wish of giving money to a Jewish survivor of the camp Hanna worked at. The lady refuses to accept the money and Michael opening up to her, confesses all about his relationship with Hanna.
The Reader is written in lucid, simple, unemotional prose and it is clear that the affair between Michael and Hanna represents the affair that Germany had with the Nazi movement. Having studied German at university, I was familiar with this genre of novel which struggles with the question of coming to terms with the atrocities of the Holocaust and collective guilt. The Germans call it Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the attempt in history, art and culture to analyze and learn to live with the past and the realisation that it things are not as black and white as they may appear, as Michael says:
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. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.
It is an absorbing and thought-provoking novel and it remained with me for quite some time after I turned the last page.