The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, takes place in postwar Germany.
Michael Berg's high school year is interrupted by hepititis. The last day he managed to stumble into school, he didn't make it home on his own. He'd thrown up on Banhofstrasse, where a brusque, determined woman cleaned him up, carried his school books, and walked him home.
Months later, when Michael was well again, he bought flowers, returned to Banhofstrasse, introduced himself, and thanked this woman, as he was expected to do. That is how Michael comes to meet Hanna again. What follows is an affair between the 15-year-old Michael and the thirty-something Hanna, in which Hanna has the upper hand. An important part of their time together involves her insistence that Michael read to her, which he does, reluctantly at first, and then with enthusiasm. During this period, Michael is consumed with this affair, arranges his social life around it, spends time choosing books to read, and daydreams about Hanna. Then, one day, she is gone. She's quit her job and moved out of her apartment with warning.
By this point, the reader (of this novel) is certainly wondering about Hanna: why is this attractive youngish woman so alone and why would she want sex with a 15-year-old boy? She must have a problem, this isn't normal, and in our culture, it would be a crime.
Hanna is indeed hiding something, as Michael is to discover some years down the road, as a law student, when he witnesses a trial in which Hanna is one of the defendants. She is accused of a war crime from the days she spent as a prison guard, working for the SS. Is this why Hanna has moved from place to place, always alone? No, but that is what the jury is led to believe, and Hanna does not defend herself against the worst of accusations because she is still in hiding, unwilling to reveal a certain personal flaw. In fact, Hanna had chosen to work for the SS over another job to hide this secret, a choice I cannot understand and find repugnant and amoral.
During this part of the novel, author Bernhard Schlink addresses the generation gap of postwar Germany.
Parental expectations, from which every generation must free itself, were nullified by the fact that these parents had failed to measure up during the Third Reich or after it ended. How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them--how could they have anything to say to their children?
Michael Berg has a unique perspective, for someone of his generation. After all, he has been in love with a former Nazi. His relationship with Hanna had already adversely affected his emotional life and relationships, but now, at the trial, he was suddenly facing moral issues, as well.
At this point, he is no longer in love with Hanna, but he is again consumed with trying to understand her, and when one day he realizes what her secret is, he struggles with what he should do with this knowledge. Michael has always carried around guilt about Hanna, a feeling that he's somehow betrayed her, which I never completely understood. However, it is understandable, at this point in his life, that he would not want to turn his back on someone he had cared for.
And so, in the end, Michael Berg does what he feels is right by Hanna and makes him feel most comfortable. I understand Michael's choices, but Hanna remains an enigma to me. I cannot understand the way she lived, and perhaps she is meant to represent a generation that feared certain types of exposure so much that they would fall in line and willingly do what most people would find unthinkable and horrible. I would add that Hanna's secret flaw could have been corrected, but instead, she seems to have developed a one-track mind for hiding it.
At the same time, I do not enjoy having such unsympathetic feelings towards Hanna. It does make me feel uncomfortable to judge her that way. And, I suppose, that is the art of Bernhard Schlink. The Reader is just 218 pages, but it packs a wallop, exploring all the gray areas in moral questions, and is definitely worth the read. I am grateful this was made into a movie, since it reminded me to finally read this book!