Hailed as one of the most intense and thought-provoking reads in modern time, The Reader is a brilliant commentary on the generation that came after WW2. Growing up in the 1950s in the aftermath of the war, Bernhard Schlink articulates the emotions he and others like him went through, at a time when Germany was still rebuilding itself and the perpetrators of the war were alive and active in the older generation. With its initial plot of a sexual relationship between a young boy and an older woman, it might be mistaken as a coming of age story, but The Reader doesn’t let you labour under that delusion for long.
Michael Berg is 15 years old when he first meets 36-year-old Hanna Schmidt in the late 1950s. Unwell for a while, he collapses in the street where Hanna stays, and she brings him home to rest until he can go home again. Diagnosed with hepatitis, he spends a couple of months bedridden, and when he is well enough, his mother directs him to go thank the unknown woman who helped him. Arriving with flowers and a few rehearsed lines, the socially awkward Michael mumbles his thanks and turns to leave. Hanna offers to walk him down to the street, and as she wears her shoes, he catches a glimpse of her stockinged leg. It is a sight that stays with him long after he returns home, prompting him to visit her again.
She isn’t at home but arrives soon with a coal scuttle. She gives Michael the task of collecting coal from the building’s basement; a task which results in the inexperienced Michael returning with a full scuttle but covered in coal dust, much to Hanna’s amusement. She heats water for him to bathe while she dusts off his clothes; when she returns with a towel to dry him off, he discovers she has discarded her own clothes too, and they make love. Thus begins their intensely physical relationship, where Michael finds himself a willing student to all that Hanna has to teach.
It is a strange relationship from the beginning, and not because of the age difference. They only meet in Hanna’s apartment and nowhere else; the one time Michael tries interacting with her on the tram where she works as a conductor does not go well for him. Hanna dominates the relationship, playful and joking at times, haughty and angry at others. Michael learns early that questions about her past, or indeed any questions, are to be avoided if he doesn’t want her to get angry with him. Despite all this, he continues meeting her almost every day after school.
Their trysts follow a pattern until Hanna learns that Michael is studying the classics in school; a new ritual is then introduced. After their lovemaking, she has him read out to her from the books he is learning from, and some he knows of by himself. They go through numerous books, and Hanna’s opinions and verbal reviews of them are well thought of and deep, something that helps Michael with his studies and in perceiving the tales from the perspective of another person. The relationship too serves as an education for him, putting him at ease while talking to girls in his class, at a time when most of the other boys are too awkward or shy to do so. He slowly becomes part of a group of his classmates but is careful to keep both his worlds separate; first as a precaution, and then because it is too late to reveal news of that import.
The only time the rule of meeting only in Hanna’s apartment is broken is when they go for a cycling trip into the countryside during Michael’s summer vacation. Michael convinces his parents he is going with friends, and Hanna acquiesces on the condition that he plan everything, which he readily does. It is an idyllic time for both – cycling during the day, stopping at inns in the evening and staying together and of course reading out to Hanna – marred only by one incident where they fight when Hanna can’t find him one morning, despite the note he leaves for her. The fight follows its usual route, with Michael falling over himself to apologize, and Hanna returning to her old charming self after a while.
Something changes after they return from the trip. As Michael’s school year begins, he finds himself spending more and more time with his classmates, and his trysts with Hanna reduce in frequency. Conversely, her bouts of anger increase and she lashes out at him often. And then one day, when he arrives at her apartment, she is no longer there. The landlord tells him she vacated the apartment, and even the manager of the tram company knows nothing of her whereabouts; she resigned even as he was going to promote her to a supervisory position. He further learns she is moving to another city but has given no forwarding address.
It takes a while for Michael to get used to the idea that Hanna is gone, and even then, she never truly fades from his memory. His personality changes too; he is more aloof from his peers, a little jaded. It becomes a way of shielding himself even as he moves from school to college, where he studies law. During this time, one of his professors forms a group of students who are to observe, record, and discuss the trial of Nazi camp guards who have been captured after all this while. A rotation is worked out where every student in the group gets to spend a day in court, experiencing the proceedings for themselves. Michael doesn’t get to go until the third day when after almost six years, he sees Hanna again; she is one of the accused.
The impersonal trial suddenly becomes that much more personal for him. Up until then, though Michael has studied about the war and the camps and their consequences in school, it has always been unconnected to anyone he knows. Now, of all the people, it is Hanna who was not just a part of the war, but according to the charges took an active part in the incarceration and torture of the victims. The charges have been brought by a woman who survived the camp with her mother, and she alleges Hanna was one of the camp guards who brutalized the inmates and was responsible for the deaths of several of them. The image of Hanna doing something like that is incomprehensible to Michael at first, compelling him to attend the trial every day.
As the trial proceeds, Michael can’t help but observe his fellow students. Unlike him, they have no personal stake in it. Their discussions are academic, their anger towards what happened vague and undirected, their feelings towards their parents’ generation that was part of the war idealistically derisive, their discussions more theoretical than practical. As the trial stretches for weeks, an air of numbness settles on everyone, even the jury and the other people attending. And even as he attends every day, Hanna gives no indication of having seen him.
During Hanna’s questioning and testimony, Michael sees her frank demeanour and straightforward responses antagonizing the judge, which is being used by the lawyers of the other guards to play down the roles of their clients while building her up to be the one in charge. This is further strengthened by the allegations of the survivors who claim Hanna pulled out certain inmates from the ranks who were too weak to perform labour, keeping each of them with her for a month or so before sending them off to their deaths. Everyone but Michael is baffled when they are told that the inmates weren’t made to do anything other than read out to her; for him, it is like a jigsaw puzzle slowly taking shape in his mind, one piece at a time.
The trial talks of a forced march where the inmates of the camp were made to cover a large distance in freezing cold with little to no protection, where many of the already weak prisoners succumbed to the elements. On the way, they stopped at a village where the surviving inmates were locked in a church, and when the church caught fire, Hanna is alleged to be the guard responsible for letting them burn by refusing to open the locked doors. The other defendants name her as the one who wrote the after-action report and signed on it, a charge she vehemently denies until the judge orders a writing analysis to be conducted. On hearing that, she suddenly backtracks and admits she wrote the report. Michael agonizes over why she would change her plea, and then it dawns on him.
Hanna can neither read nor write.
Michael recalls his experiences with Hanna when it came to reading and writing. When he read out to her, she followed his words, not the books. During their cycling trip, she claimed not to have found any note from him. When she left the city, the tram company manager mentioned wanting to promote her to a supervisory position; it would have involved writing, reading, and signing off on reports. As he realizes this, his knee-jerk reaction is to want to approach the judge and let him know this. But even as he wants to do that, another part of him mulls over why she would prefer to hide her illiteracy than being exonerated of the false charges.
His conundrum leads him to converse with his father, a renowned professor of philosophy. Through that and through his internal dialogue, he resolves to let the trial take its own course, and Hanna is sentenced to twenty years in prison. Being led away after the sentencing is the only time she looks at Michael, indicating she knew he was there all along.
The conclusion of the trial has a profound effect on Michael; pursuing corporate or criminal law no longer holds any appeal for him, and he opts for legal research instead. He also has a few short-lived relationships, which end because there is always Hanna as an unspoken, unseen presence that he finds himself comparing all his partners to. He does get married to a fellow student with whom he has a child, but that too ends in a divorce, and he finds he prefers being by himself, surrounded by his memories of Hanna. As he allows his recollections of her to re-emerge fully, he starts recording himself reading out books, which he mails to Hanna in prison.
At first, Michael reads out the kind of books he knows Hanna had a preference for, taking a few months for each book and mailing all the recorded cassettes together. A few years later, he is surprised when there is a letter for him from Hanna; the writing is blocky, childish, effortful, but is an indicator that she is taking steps to overcome her liability. The note itself is simple, thanking him for the cassettes, and yet he cannot bring himself to reply to it. He continues sending her recordings, but never communicates with her directly. She, however, keeps sending him letters, and through them, he tracks her progress with her writing skills.
Events proceed in this manner for more years, and Michael is content to let things remain the way they are, so he is surprised when he receives a letter from the prison warden. Hanna’s sentence will be over the next year, and the warden has taken the liberty of reaching out to him as he is the only one who corresponds with her. The warden enlists his help in securing a job and a place for Hanna to stay when she is released and insists they meet so they can converse at greater length. Michael ensures the first two but puts off meeting both Hanna and the warden until the last minute, unsure of how he would handle such an interaction.
He finally meets her a month before her scheduled release. In his mind, Hanna is still the woman he knew all those years ago, but the person in front of him is white-haired and wrinkled, and any resemblance to the Hanna of old is only in her eyes and her bearing. She also seems to have slowed down in his eyes, the nervous energy she possessed replaced by calm acceptance. The meeting is awkward and perfunctory, with Michael informing her of the apartment and the job awaiting her and promising to come on the day of her release.
Hanna never gets released. A week before she is to get out, she dies by suicide. Michael is given the news by the warden, and when he comes to the prison, he is shown her cell for the first time. The recordings sent by him occupy the place of pride on her desk, and there are bookshelves filled with volumes. As her reading skills improved, Hanna started reading books about the Holocaust and accounts by the survivors; in her own way, she was trying to find answers to her questions. She had become a respected authority with the other prisoners looking up to her, with even the warden considering her a friend and being deeply angered and saddened by her death. She gives Michael a note from Hanna, where she tells him of a sum of money she has saved which she wants him to give the woman who brought the charges against her at the trial.
Michael seeks out the woman and tells her of Hanna’s wish. The woman understands it is her way of seeking absolution, but at the same time feels her actions cannot be granted that. She bids him donate the money to any charity of his choice instead, which he does – to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy. It is only after that that he visits Hanna’s grave for the first and only time.
The Reader peaks and ebbs from straightforward storytelling to complex reminiscences that make one pause, reread and contemplate for a while before moving on. Schlink’s description of the idealistic reactions of the college students while discussing the case and the Nazi era, in general, is one such instance – the students in their early twenties, some of whom were children during the time of war but had no concrete recollections of it, are quick to vilify their parents’ generation for either not doing enough, or not doing anything to combat the scourge. At the same time, their dedication towards the case and towards justice is superficial at best, as seen by the overwhelming numbness and the sense of wanting it all to be over the only dominant emotions as the trial stretches on for weeks.
Even Michael, who is more involved, is seen veering between confusion and trying to understand but not really succeeding. His actions like visiting the concentration camp during the trail and speaking with some of the older generation show of his desire to learn but being forever destined to view it as something that happened to others and where he is but a spectator. He can observe, but he can never fully understand. His generation will forever be outsiders, watching but never understanding for the lack of being able to internalize the experiences.
Contrary to this, Hanna represents both the willful ignorance of the war generation as well as the willingness of some to learn and seek atonement after the deed. Her illiteracy is shown as a metaphor for the German people failing to identify and uproot the evil among them, while her journey towards literacy is the journey of those people who post-war took steps to learn the truth and mend bridges in whatever way they could. Both aspects are simplified, as the actions leading up to and during the war were a far more complex amalgamation than mere ignorance or unwillingness, but it serves as a good enough starting point for those interested in delving further into the past.