I read this first in 2009, but I picked it up again a few days ago to form part of the Books To Movie Challenge hosted by Two Bibliomaniacs. I’ve had the film on my shelf since reading it the first time but I figured the challenge was a sign from The Great Reader In The Sky to finally get round to watching it.
From Amazon – ‘Michael Berg is 15 when he begins a long, obsessive affair with Hanna, an enigmatic older woman. He never learns very much about her and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again. But, to his horror, he does. Hanna is a defendant in a trial related to Germany’s Nazi past and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. As Michael follows the trial, he struggles with an overwhelming question: what should his generation do with its knowledge of the Holocaust?‘
Okay, so first of all – THIS BOOK HAS MY NAME IN IT. This is A Huge Deal when your name is as rare as mine and you’ve spent your entire life being asked why you spell your name wrong. Hardly a glowing recommendation if your name’s not Hanna, but mine is and so I’m going to continue to irritate those around me by reading out passages that might even vaguely be read to mean me.
Just in case my excitement over the use of my name hasn’t caught on… this is one of the most moving and emotional books I’ve ever read. Michael’s feelings for Hanna are brutally exposed and Hanna’s refusal to save herself during the trial for her crimes made me want to hug her and shake her all at the same time. Hanna and Michael are the only regularly occurring characters but I’d easily agree that they have the best described personalities of any book I’ve ever read. They seem so real – there is no attempt to hide their flaws and the reasons behind their motivations and desires are so obvious that they don’t even need to be explained.
Part of the moving nature of the book comes from the different ‘voices’ of Michael. Part One details his affair with Hanna – his obsession with her body, youthful desires and complete acceptance of his awkward situation sets it apart completely from Part Two. Here Michael is much older and analyses meticulously the psychology behind his relation with Hanna in the past and the present. The vocabulary is more advanced and he examines her trial from legal and moral aspects, thoroughly and honestly attributing blame where it is due. This in particular is why The Reader is so clever – the ‘Michael’ in each part is different, yet still recognisably developed from the other.
The summary from Amazon asks how the generation born after the War are meant to deal with the Holocaust, but this wasn’t the underlining issue for me in this book.
‘Imagine someone is racing intentionally towards his own destruction and you can save him – do you go ahead and save him? Imagine there’s an operation, and the patient is a drug user and the drugs are incompatible with the anaesthetic, but the patient is ashamed of being an addict and does not want to tell the anaesthetist – do you talk to the anaesthetist?’
Hanna could not possibly have committed the crimes for which she is on trial due to a secret shame she holds. Revealing this secret would drastically reduce her sentence in prison, but she holds firm and continues to guard herself. Michael must choose whether to enlighten the court or protect Hanna’s secret and save her from a life-time in prison. I’m amazed this didn’t feature in the summary, as for me this moral issue is the fundamental point of the book.
In addition to the moral issues, the legal principles also interested me – possibly because the glow from my recently acquired Law degree hasn’t yet worn off. There’s one thing I don’t understand though – retroactive justice has always (since the 1700s) been seen as unjust and renders any action unindictable. When Hanna and the other women were guards at that camp, their actions were perfectly legal and were only defined as ‘crimes’ after the fact. This is ‘Victor’s Law’ and so the whole trial would have been invalid.
I know, I know, it’s fiction… but I had a morbid enthusiasm for war crimes during University 🙂