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Oprah's Book Club

If you plan on reading this novel, do not read this review yet; a key plot twist will be revealed.  However, there is no need to read the novel, so feel free to proceed.

This book has exploded onto the scene after being recommended for Oprah's Book Club.  It is the story of Michael Berg, a 15 year old German boy and his love affair with Hanna Schmitz, a 36 year old train conductor in late 50's Germany.  Schmitz likes to bathe him and have him read to her before they scrump.  Michael keeps their relationship secret from family and friends for obvious reasons.  Inevitably, as Michael approaches manhood their "love" falters and Hanna disappears.  When next he sees her, Michael is a law student and Hanna is on trial as an SS concentration camp guard, responsible for the death of a number of her charges during a bombing.  Michael's initial shock at seeing her in the dock is quickly erased as he realizes that Hanna is accepting blame for writing a report about the incident  rather than reveal the secret that has suddenly dawned on him, she can't read or write.  Should Michael approach the court with this knowledge?  or should he honor her tender feelings and allow her to take the brunt of the blame?  This is the central moral dilemma facing Michael as perceived by the author.

How about this question: doesn't Michael have an obligation to approach the court in order to ensure that the Holocaust victims receive justice, however inadequate, and to make sure that the other genocidal guards are punished?  That's not a question that even occurs to the author of this morally vacuous novel.   He's too busy plumbing the shallows to even perceive the ethical depths.  Here's the stunning question from Hanna that exposes the Judge and the prosecution and the trial as a farce: What would you have done?  This question shames the entire courtroom into silence.  Does the author truly believe that everyone there would have participated in the Holocaust given the opportunity?  Before you say no, consider this speech that Michael hears from an elderly security guard when he visits a camp:

            You're right, there was no war and no reason for hatred. But
            executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute
            them all the same. Because they're ordered to? You think they do
            it because they're ordered to? And you think I'm talking about
            orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under
            orders and had to obey?' He laughed sarcastically. ├źNo, I'm not
            talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under
            orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he
            executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them
            because they're in his way or threatening or attacking him. They're
            a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily
            as not.

Well, apparently Schlink has never considered issues of the type raised in Hitler's Willing Executioners (see review) If he had, he would have to reckon with the powerful argument that the executioners, all the way from Hitler to the lowliest clerk or custodian, did hate their victims and hated them with a very specific and virulent anti-Semitic hatred.

In another of the novels seeming blind spots, there is testimony at the trial that Hanna would select weakly young female prisoners and have them read to her.  Michael bristles at the suggestion that there was something sexual about this and sees it as part and parcel of her illiteracy.  He does not even consider the predatory relationship that she pursued with him or the weird way in which she seems to have duplicated her camp experience, seducing the sickly young Michael.  In the final, unintended, irony, after her death, Michael gives the proceeds of Hanna's estate, to an organization devoted to teaching illiterate Jews to read.  Training the next generation of readers?

What you basically have here is a book which starts out like a pubescent boy's fevered sexual fantasy or a letter to Penthouse forum, but then deteriorates into grand philosophizing that is so insipid as to be infuriating.  The moral of the tale as the author presents it is that Hanna would not have committed genocide if they'd had audio books in the 40's.

Skip this one.


Grade: (F)


Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: Bernhard Schlink novelist (1997)(Beatrice)
    -RealAudio Author Reading (Bold Type)
    -Reading Group Guide (Vintage Books)
    -FIRST CHAPTER: The Reader
    -Oprah Bookclub
    -Discussion Questions & Links: The Reader
    -READERS GUIDE :  The Reader by Bernhard Schlink  (Book Browse)
    -Review (Culture@home)
    -Review: Once Loving, Once Cruel, What's Her Secret? (New York Times, Richard Bernstein)
    -Review: Secrets and Lies (New York Times, Suzanne Ruta)
    -Review: Modern Love  (New York Review of Books, DJ Enright)