By: Bernhard Schlink
This was a book club choice. I’m fairly torn about how I feel about it. On one hand, it is a short two hundred and eighteen pages of stripped down prose that is a delight to read in its own right, but on the other, it lacked emotion and failed to engage me enough to care for the protagonist.
I feel like this was more of a “thinking man’s” book than a truly engaging piece of literary fiction. It raises a host of questions about guilt, shame, love, and morality. And yes, it was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet.
Micheal Berg is a fifteen year old boy who has an affair with a thirty-six year old Hanna. He meets her completely by accident. He is walking to school and falls ill. She helps him and sends him home. He later returns to her apartment to thank her. He is infatuated with her and she stirs desire in him. In a scene that reminds me of Mrs. Robinson, she is putting on her stockings and he is turned on by it. He flees, embarrassed. He returns and she seduces him.
I’m a little unsure why a woman of her age would want to be with a boy of fifteen. Did I find it uncomfortable? Yes. Did it deter me from reading the book? No.
Their relationship progresses and she asks him to read to her after they finish making love. He finds it strange at first but they fall into a rhythm. Hanna is present but distant in her relationship with Micheal. Micheal is completely obsessed and in love/lust. She sets the boundaries of the relationship and afraid she will shut him out, he goes along with it. One day Hanna leaves with no explanation. This is part one of the book.
In Part 2, Micheal meets Hanna again, but she is on trial for war crimes. He is in law school and is in the court room observing and taking notes for his professor.
Hanna was a guard at a concentration camp that forced the women prisoners to march through the country side to escape the Allies. They stopped at a village and the prisoners found shelter in a church. The church was bombed, a raging fire ensued, the women were killed. The female Nazi guards could have unlocked the church door, but they didn’t.
In this section Micheal also realizes that Hanna is illiterate and this fact could help her in court, but she never tells her lawyer. Micheal wants to step in on her behalf and tell the judge what he knows but in the end he doesn’t. She is found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in prison.
In Part 3, Micheal tries to reconcile Hanna’s participation in the war with the woman he fell in love with. He is haunted by memories of her. His love affairs fail, his marriage fails. He reads books aloud and tapes them and sends them to Hanna in jail. She learns to read and write in prison and she sends him short notes. They never really correspond. At the end of the story he visits her in jail and agrees to help her re-acclimate to society. There is an awkward moment where he tries to reconcile the old woman before him with the young vision in his head. Hanna kills herself before her release.
This story raises many questions but that’s all it does. It is a story for you to ponder but not one that offers any answers nor any moral compass.
The characters remain stagnant. Micheal is never truly able to grasp the effects the relationship with Hanna had on his life. At some point as an adult, he should have been able to look back at that time and conclude that he was young, emotionally and mentally immature, and that the relationship was unbalanced. Instead, he remains enthralled to an idealized sexual affair. (He never understood Hanna’s actions because he wasn’t emotionally mature enough to comprehend them.)
During their affair, Micheal talks about how he has put Hanna in a ‘niche’ in his life and the guilt he feels about this. ( I would call this compartmentalizing.) Their lives are not shared. He is either with his school friends or with her. He wants to participate with his friends in their after school socializing. This desire to experience a life like that of his peers conflicts greatly with his desire for Hanna and their illicit affair that is far outside the social norm. He questions why he never tells his friends about Hanna. But this self-examination is a blip in the story.
And that is one of the problems with this story. Micheal never questions himself, his actions, his thoughts, or feelings when it comes to Hanna, or to any of the moral questions that are presented to him. He thinks about them in a detached sort of way as if these moments were text book examples to be debated.
The last two parts of the book are filled with Michael’s guilt and shame over Hanna. He keeps her idealized but knows she is flawed. Her actions during the war do not appall him. It’s the embarrassingly naive way she tries to defend herself at trial that upsets Michael. In that moment, he should have realized that the pedestal he had kept her on just crumbled.
He thinks about Hanna and wants to help her but then his affair with her would come out. The main character never once mentions the social stigma he might suffer by helping a woman on trial for war crimes. I thought this was a bit convenient. Instead his lack of action is framed by what Hanna, or a higher moral code, would expect of him.
I never truly understood Michael’s long term obsession with Hanna. How did she enrich his life, besides sexually? Hanna remains an enigma even to the reader. We only have Michael’s interpretation of what she might be thinking and why she behaves the way she does.
One of the major questions in this book is:
Can you understand/love someone and condemn them at the same time? (This applies to Hanna as well as Michael parents.)
Michael’s parents were active German (Nazi) citizens during the war. They supported the Nazi regime as did most of Michael’s peers’ parents. Can you still love and respect your parents after you learn about some of the awful things they may have done?
(German post war generational strife is touched on in the book. I wish their was more about this.)
Michael seemed to languish in anguish remaining child-like with indecision regarding all things Hanna. I found this frustrating as a reader. Michael needed to decide for himself what he believed and where his own personal boundaries lie. Due to the lack of character development I ‘m giving this book three stars. If you want a quick read that raises many philosophical questions then I would definitely give this book a try.
PS I’m going to watch the movie. I hear it’s better than the book. 😉