Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Book Club May 2012 Pick

[Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway]

Schlink’s 1995 book is both a disturbing story of forbidden passion, and a thought-provoking addition to Holocaust literature.

Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz cross paths thrice in their lives, and each encounter leaves in its wake pain and confusion. One question that torments the protagonist is the difficulty of loving, or having loved one, whom moral sense as well as society constrains to condemn. The other is the even thornier issue of allocating individual culpability in crimes in which an entire nation is deemed complicit, if not by direct participation then in guilt by association.

Schlink writes like the law professor he is. The book is often dry with passages of tortuous rationalizing. Despite the ponderous style the author makes one thing clear: though many are guilty to some extent, others have been made convenient scapegoats due to their inability to mitigate the case against them.

Schlink raises questions of class and education in musing over one’s inclination towards crime, which as sociologists will attest, are factors too potent to ignore - generally speaking, that is. However, they don’t begin to give clues as to what happened in Germany in the first half of the Twentieth Century. On the book’s publication, accusations were made by some quarters that the author was attempting to validate Nazi atrocities. That charge seems unjustified. No purpose can be served by demonizing the perpetrators of genocide, or indeed any other act of inhumanity. Merely that some things cannot be understood is no reason to stop us from trying.

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