viernes, 3 de junio de 2011

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

In his novel The Reader Bernard Schlink provides us with a pair of strong characters. As we get to know them, we find a challenge for ourselves. How would we have reacted in those circumstances? What would we have done? The challenge surfaces many times in the book and, by the end, the reader is probably confused by conflicting answers.

A review should not reveal plot. In the case of The Reader, this makes writing a review very hard, since what happens to these characters is the whole basis of the book. In some ways the relationship between them has to be interpreted and reinterpreted through a prism of what we know about them, and this should not be revealed. So what follows is mere outline.

We first meet Michael Berg in his mid-teens. He’s a frail young man, rather disaffected and, as a result of missed time at school, an under-achiever. As the story progresses, he finds new energy and direction, completes a university degree, embarks upon a successful career and the usual muddled personal life. Michael, however, always wants to reflect, to analyse responses.

At first glance Hanna is a rather different kind of person. She is in her thirties, has a son and works as a conductor on the trams. One day she ups and leaves without notice, despite having been offered promotion by her boss. She resurfaces later, on trial in a distant future, accused of crimes from her past, crimes she shared with many others. Hanna seems to have an uncomplicated directness. It appears that she sees what she wants in life and pursues it.

Michael and Hanna have a relationship. She is twice his age and in public everyone assumes that they are mother and son. But they have an intense, highly erotic arrangement. It changes Michael’s life, but perhaps merely occupies Hanna’s. At least that’s what we initially fear. When the couple are not coupling, Hanna demands that Michael read to her. He becomes her reader, and they spend many and regular hours at the pastime.

When Hanna ups and leaves, Michael is devastated. They have had their arguments, but he cannot understand why she has gone. Then, years later, after lives have changed and they have drifted apart, Hanna resurfaces along with her dubious past. She is on trial.

Over a period of years Michael contacts her regularly. He makes sure she always has tapes of him reading to her. He makes no allowance for her taste, choosing to record what he personally wants to read. Hanna, it seems, cannot get enough of this. It is Hanna’s past that is on trial and the events in question are carefully documented and related in detail by those involved.

But what were the motives? Why did these people do what they did? And exactly who might be culpable? And what would you have done under such circumstances? That is the challenge.

By the end of The Reader, Bernard Schlink has turned our perceptions of these people onto their heads and back again. As you read, you, the reader, should always remember the book’s challenge. What would you have done?

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