Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader"
If the purpose of a writer is to make his readers care about the fate of his
characters, there will be occasions when a reader finishes a book so enraged by
the outcome that he wants to write to the author to persuade him to change it. I
felt that way about Bernhard Schlink's book, The Reader.
by Bernhard Schlink
(translator: Carol Brown Janeway)
US: Pantheon Books, ISBN 0 67944 279 0, 160 pages (Hardcover)
List $21, price through Amazon.com $14.70
UK: Phoenix House, ISBN 1 861 59063 6, 216 pages (Softcover)
I found myself involved in the characters' lives, willing them to change
their ways because I could see that the path they were following could only lead
Since The Day of the Jackal (if not before), it has been fashionable to
anchor fiction by reference to historical events, dates, places, as if they could
witness to the honesty of the account we are reading. If an author says that
something happened on December 5th, 1963, he feels under a duty to check whether
it was raining in Denver on that night. Any looser approach would be regarded as
shoddy, even though we are aware that it is fiction that we read.
Schlink is to be congratulated for reminding us that one can write a gripping
and haunting narrative without dwelling too closely on times or places. The sense
of thirties' Germany, of the war and its aftermath, of the atmosphere of guilt
and self-loathing, of the relentless quest for scapegoats are all dealt with by
creating a mood, not by specific examples. We do not need to hear what statesmen
were saying, because it is what is being said in the cafés and tutorial rooms
that drives Schlink's narrator, Michael Berg. In forty-six short chapters -- less
than five pages each, on average -- we see sketches, glimpses, enigmatic views
through frosted glass of Berg and Hanna Schmitz, from which we construct an idea
of their characters and relationship. Little is said, much is implied, a great
deal is conveyed.
To expand upon the plot would be to ruin the book for those who have not read
it. Let it be said merely that the title comes from Berg's habit of reading aloud
to Hanna, a habit rarely practiced these days and yet one which still gives me
pleasure. It is a title which tells us everything and nothing; everything,
because it explains the puzzling turns in the plot, and nothing, because one is
left with the feeling that little that happened was inescapable.
What little German literature I have read before was contained in books of
around six hundred pages, burdened with adjectives and a heavy dependence upon
fate as a prime cause of our actions. Schlink has the lightest of touches,
skipping through a weighty subject and pausing only to point out the densest
thickets of our moral difficulties before moving on. He does not engage in
argument with us, nor define a position, but notes what people do without
necessarily spelling out why. If he has drawn the characters well enough from
life, the reader will know why. It is a story of man acting in accordance with
moral principles, allowing others full freedom of action, and thereby ruining one
life and wasting another. It is, perhaps, a tragic tale, but not without its
a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He
lives in Cornwall, England.