Their relationship only lasts one summer, and it begins with a bout of vomiting. High school student Michael Berg throws up in front of the apartment building of streetcar conductress Hanna Schmitz. It is the period following the Second World War.
In the midst of prudish Adenauer Germany, the 15-year-old and the quiet woman 21 years his senior become lovers. They meet secretly in her apartment, taking baths together and having sex. One other ritual unites them: Michael always has to read to Hanna.
"She was an attentive listener. Her laugh, her sniffs of contempt, and her angry enthusiastic remarks left no doubt that she was following the actions intently."
What begins as a tender love story ends abruptly when Hanna disappears. Years later, Michael runs into her by chance in a courtroom. She has been accused of the mass murder of hundreds of Jewish women. His former lover as a cold-blooded Nazi murderer?
Lover and murderer
Schlink slowly reveals Hanna's secret. She is illiterate. That is why she likes to have someone read to her. She accepts the maximum penalty only so that she will not have to admit to her big secret — out of shame, out of fear of exposure.
"Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths?"
Michael, who does not miss one day of the trial, recognizes her weakness yet stays silent anyway. After she has been in prison for a while, he begins reading to Hanna again — world literature from Schnitzler to Chekhov, this time recording it on cassettes, which he sends to her in prison.
It is only now that Hanna finally overcomes her shame. She learns to read and write and begins to process her guilt. Genocide as the result of a lack of education? Schlink's protagonist, an older Michael Berg, ponders this guiltily.
Bernhard Schlink's The Reader became an international best-seller, and has been translated into 40 languages. It has sold millions of copies, and is part of required reading in many German schools. Critics, however, still reproached the author for "a base attempt at elucidation" and "cultural pornography." Why choose an uneducated woman to personify German guilt? They said Schlink had turned an SS henchwoman into a character people could identify with.
But that is precisely the attraction of this novel. It reveals the banality of evil. The perpetrators were ordinary people who did not expose their bestial offenses. Schlink does not relativize Hanna's guilt by way of her illiteracy. Instead, he shows how the human fallibility of every individual can lead to their downfall.
Bernhard Schlink: The Reader, Vintage International / Penguin Random House (German title: Der Vorleser, 1995). English translation: Carol Brown Janeway.
Bernhard Schlink was born in Bielefeld in 1944. He is a lawyer, and lives in both Berlin and New York. His novel The Reader, which was published in 1995 and turned into an award-winning film released in 2009, catapulted him to international fame.