Saturday, 4 June 2011

Say it. Out loud. Vampire?

No, not vampire. I know the title of this post is misleading, but do you honestly think I would write anything about Twilight? Really? I could never stoop so low.

The Reader, a novel by Bernhard Schlink, is set in Germany from about ten to thirty years after the end of World War II. Published in 1995, it looks back at Michael Berg's life and how a certain Hanna Schmitz was involved in it so intricately and so vitally.

For those of you who have not read The Reader, I encourage you to look away if you wish to read or watch the film adaptation without any knowledge of what is coming next. However, I cannot really write any sort of interesting review if I do not spill a couple of secrets. Nothing too terrible, I promise.

Michael first meets Hanna when he is 15-years-old and quite ill, after throwing up in the street. Typically romantic, if you ask me. Anyway, Hanna cleans him up and sends him on his way. However, Michael cannot stop thinking about this mysterious woman and goes back to find her. Immediately, you know he is being a bit silly because firstly she is old enough to be his mother and secondly she doesn't strike the reader as the kindest sort. But Michael does find her eventually and over not too much time they start what I perceive to be a rather twisted relationship, in that they fornicate after school and then he reads aloud to her.

However, it isn't just a purely physical relationship. Though Michael is certainly unsure about what Hanna feels for him (she only ever calls him 'Kid'), he knows he is head-over-heels in love with her, despite her sourly pinched face and her abruptness of speech, and even when she suddenly leaves without as much as a goodbye, he still cannot stop thinking about her.

This is why it comes as a nasty surprise to Michael when he sees Hanna again years later. Michael, at this point, is studying law, and his class is attending a long, drawn-out trial, where former female SS guards are being tried for their actions. Hanna is a defendant. This is when Michael realises in horror that he fell in love with a staunch Nazi.

And this, for me, is when I started to wonder. I already knew the outcome of the story, because I saw the film when it came out, but Schmidt still managed to give me that feeling of shock that Michael must feel when he sees Hanna in front of the judge. Because Hanna's principle crime is truly horrific: the SS were told to lock a large group of women in a village church and make sure no one escaped. When bombs started to fall on the host village, there were screams erupting from the church as it burned down to the ground, but the guards, including Hanna, refused to open the doors. Why? Because no one was allowed to escape; and she was following orders. Personally, this sickens me. But then I thought about it from Hanna's point of view: if she had opened the doors, she and the other guards would probably have been killed for their disobedience. Still, there is no excuse for letting those women die.

Another philosophical point that the novel brings to mind is that of illiteracy. I recently read a series of articles about illiteracy in London, and the figures are staggering. One boy in a primary school, when asked to bring in a book for class, brought in an Argos catalogue, because in his home there were no books at all. For us at The English Review, this is sacrilegious. Hanna Schmitz is also illiterate. For this, she is sentenced to life in jail because she is accused of writing the report on the church incident, though it is impossible, for the above mentioned reason. Even in the concentration camps, Hanna had the weaker women read aloud to her before they were sent off to Auschwitz.

Then I thought about what would happen if I couldn't read, or anyone couldn't for that matter. A Rossetti poem that we studied for AS called Lalla: Reading My Verses Topsy-Turvy is where the idea of words and letters as visually pleasing is explored. Once someone can read, one cannot appreciate the visual effect of a letter. It just becomes a letter that you read (if that doesn't make sense, ask in the comments section). For example, when people look at Chinese letters, if they can't speak Mandarin, they only see a picture, perhaps visually attractive, perhaps not, but they are not reading the letter: they are looking at it as one would look at a painting. You have no idea, but trying to read the rest of a book whilst contemplating this and simultaneously trying to appreciate letters in their beauty is torturous.

I really recommend this book for anyone who is interested in WWII or in law or in anything really. It can be quite shocking in places, but nothing that requires a pillow to scream into or anything. And as I always say, please watch the film afterwards. I know Kate Winslet got the Oscar, and I admit it does stay rather true to the book, but nothing will ever beat the original words on a page.

By Jess


  1. I have read a few books about WWII but not yet The Reader. There are the obvious gung-ho books like those from Alistair MacClean (does that show my age?). But nowadays I am more interested in the personal, individual, thought provoking books, of which The Reader appears to be a good example. Another book I read recently 'Alone in Berlin' is another one of the genre.

  2. So glad you did not write about Twilight! Great post :)

  3. Ok im going to go and read the book now lol, fantastic review!! Can't wait for ur next one!! xxx

  4. amazing review i must say! ;) yeah i've heard about the reader and apparently it's great but i've never read it...i'm going to read the book now ;)

  5. But uh, the bible says that the world was created in 7 days *hick*

    Fornication is sin, therefore this is the book o' the devil

    Gonna go pray to jesus for ma soul, suggest you do the same.

  6. Isn't it the case that every Nazi who is on trial always retorts with the excuse that they were only following orders?

    Interesting what you say about the visual effect of letters before we can read them.

    Shall add it to my list.

  7. Great review, tres bien!

  8. A seriously good review - am I tempted to read "The Reader" now..Yes. Which is surprising considering I am not very fond at all of this kind of novel - this review, however, has intrigued me.
    nice job.