Can we both condemn and understand the past?
My reading of the English translation of this book may be influenced by the outstanding movie version, which won Kate Winslet her (well-deserved) Oscar.
Often, when I read the book version of a movie that has moved me deeply I’m disappointed (or vice versa – the movie version of the emotional “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” was a huge disappointment.)
"The Reader" doesn’t disappoint on any level. Perhaps because of my personal experiences (a white South African born to the generation who voted the Apartheid government into power), this novel moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe.
Stripping away the love story between Michael and Hanna, the way this novel explored and articulated the nature of guilt reflected many of the questions in my own mind. The deceptively simple prose style is ideal for keeping the focus on the soul-wrenching and difficult issues the illogical love Michael feels for Hanna raises in the reader’s mind (excuse the pun.)
At times I wondered if Hanna wasn’t symbolic of Germany herself, and Michael’s statement “I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it” is a poignant echo of the post-war (or, for that matter, post-apartheid) generation’s complex patriotism.
Is Hanna’s illiteracy and ignorance enough to excuse her? And is it a metaphor for previous generations of people the world over who were simply unaware of the darkness to which that ignorance/lack of education/whatever could lead them to? Should we condemn or understand them? And, if we condemn those who have lived before us, what will future generations – those yet-to-be-born generations who will have more knowledge on which to base their choices and actions than we have – find to condemn in our behaviour? Perhaps in a hundred years times vegetarian children will have to bear the guilt of previous generations who (considering themselves perfectly civilised and moral beings) today deliberately slaughter living creatures to eat.
This novel almost defies categorisation and review. As Michael himself says, “The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nevertheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.”
Sometimes I find it hard to bear that I and my beloved parents – good, ordinary people, all of us, or so I like to think – were simply too concerned with bread-and-butter issues to fight the evil of apartheid and become heroes of “the struggle.” Sometimes I find it hard to bear that, just as the German psyche will never be entirely free of the guilt of the Holocaust, so the white South African psyche will never be entirely free of the guilt of Apartheid.
Bernhard Schlink does an admirable job in addressing a topic that raises difficult moral and legal questions, none of which has easy answers.
“The Reader” is a necessary read for anyone who needs to learn that there are three sides to every story in our collective and individual histories: the victim’s side, the oppressor’s side and the truth that can never be fully known or understood. As Michael says “Whatever I had done or not done, whatever [Hanna] had done or not done…it was the path my life had taken…there are many different stories in addition to the one I have written.”
There are no guarantees that the story of the good and evil that mankind is capable of will not be repeated: the victim may become the oppressor, the oppressor the victim. As I write this review, the Palestinians live in ghettos under Israeli rule. On Black Tuesday 22-11-11, in South Africa, the black ANC government has voted in favour of an information bill, which limits the democratic freedom of speech, while the good, ordinary people (as in previous eras) were too concerned with bread-and-butter issues to care about some law whose significance they didn’t fully comprehend.
So, who knows what those who find it easier to condemn than to understand would do if a malicious Fate places them in Hanna’s shoes? “What would you have done?” Hanna asks the judge presiding over her war crimes trial. But she got no answer and nor did she expect one.
This simply written tale is a melancholy and insightful book that will linger in my mind for a long time. While it gives no easy solutions, it does provoke a deep and thoughtful analysis of how the human spirit copes when confronted with deep and horrifying truths about one’s individual and collective identity.