Author: Bernhard Schlink
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 1995
#116 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
The story begins in late nineteen-fifties West Germany. Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg becomes ill on his way home on the bus, and Hanna Schmitz, a ticket-taker in her mid-thirties, cleans Michael up and sees him home. Michael spends the next three months bedridden, battling hepatitis. Once he is recovered, Michael tracks Hanna down at her home to thank her, but accidentally catches her dressing and runs away before he can speak to her. Several days later he returns, realizing he is attracted to her. She sends him to the basement to retrieve some coal for her, and when he returns coated in dust, she strips and bathes him. An affair ensues which includes the bathing ritual, after which they make love and Michael often reads aloud to Hanna from classic literature (she is illiterate.)
As is probably not surprising for a May-December relationship, Michael (the younger of the two) is far more emotionally invested in the affair than is Hanna. She is often distant and bordering on emotionally abusive, and he believes she can do no wrong. As he ages into his late teens, the two spend less and less time together, and Hanna abruptly disappears one day, leading Michael to believe that he has offended her in some way (the reader gets the idea that Hanna is merely indifferent towards Michael.) He moves forward with his life and even has relationships with other women, despite the fact that this early relationship has tainted his idea of healthy relationships.
Fast-forward several years to Michael in law school, where he and his classmates are observing a war crimes trial. To his astonishment, Hanna is one of the defendants; having been accused of allowing 300 women under her “protection” to die in a church fire. Michael learns that the reason she disappeared those years ago is that she took a job with the SS and had been working as a guard at Auschwitz. Michael is horrified that he could have ever loved a war criminal, but is also baffled that Hanna refuses to exonerate herself – she couldn’t possibly have been following written orders to keep the women locked in the burning church – she can’t read. Michael debates revealing the secret which would set Hanna free, but ultimately decides that if her pride will not allow her to reveal her illiteracy herself, it is neither his place to do so.
Hanna is sentenced to prison and although years have passed and Michael is divorced with a daughter, he begins to tape himself reading aloud and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison. Hanna begins to slowly teach herself to read and she writes to Michael, although he cannot bring himself to write back. When she is about to be released, Michael allows himself to be convinced to be responsible for her, and agrees to find her a place to live and a job. Upon the day of her release, however, Hanna kills herself and leaves Michael instructions to give all of her money to the survivor of the church fire. He learns that once she learned to read, she read almost strictly only accounts by Holocaust survivors.
Fun Fact: The novel was turned into a 2008 film starring Kate Winslet as Hanna, David Kross as young Michael, and Ralph Fiennes as adult Michael. It was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, and Kate Winslet won for Best Actress.
Bother If: I read this book over a few days (it was easy to put down) and I nearly felt guilty that I didn’t enjoy it more, as it’s clearly a well-written book. Perhaps it just wasn’t to my tastes. It’s definitely unlike anything I have ever read before, but I didn’t find myself getting invested in the characters or particularly caring about them. Again, perhaps it’s just me. I can see why lots of people enjoyed this book, but I thought it was just okay. The age difference in the romance, at any rate, was thankfully not as creepy as it could have been, although this may owe to the fact that it was a young man and an older woman. I can’t help but wonder if it had been a teenage girl having an affair with an older male war criminal if the novel would have been as well-received.
Don’t Bother If: It has been argued that Hanna’s literal ignorance (illiteracy) is a metaphor for our generation’s ignorance of the enormity of the Holocaust. Once she remedied her ignorance, she was unable to live with herself when it was coupled with her real-life experience. While I agree with the aphorism ‘those who remain ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it’, I disagree that Hanna would be unaware on a human level of the atrocities being committed. She would have to have turned a completely blind eye to the proceedings all around her. I find this idea extremely unlikely, if not outright offensive. I also disagree that a person of my generation would have to literally live through something similar in order to be properly horrified by it. The novel also necessarily contains disturbing themes of war crimes and violence.