A woman who loves to be read to covers up a lifelong shame, at the expense of her life.
Synopsis of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink: Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany. When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover--then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
My thoughtsI heard about the movie, and decided that if it is by the same producer of The English Patient - which happens to be one of my favourite books and films - plus it deserves an Oscar, then The Reader is definitely worth reading.
The book in one sentence: Where illiteracy is more shameful than murder.
In the slew of Holocaust literature, this is among those one should read. It is a thoughtful insight into how people, in war, just are.
The prose is sparse. But the story is so rich in nuances - the story creeps up on you. I initially thought that this was a coming-of-age story of Michael, a young man in Germany in the 1950s. Hanna chances upon the boy getting sick in the streets, and "rescues" him. This initial meeting soon turns into a year-long May-December affair - where Michael is initiated into manhood by Hanna's confident woman-ness. Suddenly, Hanna disappears and Michael is heartbroken. But life goes on.
Years later, Michael is in law school. And their paths cross one more - Hanna is in the fight for her life, accused of willfully allowing the murder of hundreds of Jews under her care as an SS guard. What ensues in the courtroom is an unapologetic look into the difficult decisions and actions of people during war - where the rules suddenly change and inhumane circumstances become run-of-the-mill. The stunner here is that Hanna decides her fate of a guilty verdict - and a lifetime in jail - instead of admitting that she is illiterate. The years in jail lead Hanna to discover the written word through Michael's tape recorded stories. Their love story continues over decades - albeit long distance - until Hanna is finally granted parole as an old woman.
This book reminds me slightly of The Book Thief in that both main character has a love affair with the written word and would go to great lengths to be able to indulge. On the other hand, the unexpected revelation of Hanna's illiteracy and the whole story coming from the viewpoint of the perpetrator - rather than the victim - reminds me of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Book-to-movie: The book was translated beautifully into this movie. I am a huge admirer of Kate Winslet in this film as she brings so much sensitivity and depth to her portrayal of Hanna.
Verdict: You have gotta read this. And you have gotta see the movie too.