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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

“There's no need to talk about it, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does.”

Musings Regarding Writing Style I was not riveted by the book at the beginning. It’s the kind of writing style that requires you to read through quite a lot of chapters before your attention is finally hooked – then, you wouldn’t be able to put it down. As the many reviews written about it have already noted, there are moral clauses, philosophical treatises, circuitous questions that are often raised by the author. In more ways than one, it is a book on philosophy – challenging preconceived notions, raising rhetorical questions, and ultimately drowning in oratories that are essentially unanswerable – but no less disturbing, while the others just play with words and semantics. Illustrations would include the following passages:

“ I can recognize that events back then were part of a lifelong pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together – I think, I reach a conclusion, I turn the conclusion into a decision, and then I discover that acting on the decision is something else entirely, and that doing so may proceed from the decision, but then again it may not… (please, kindly make up your mind)

… I don’t mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.”
Page 20

Another illustration of such circuitous questioning could be found in the quote below. I think of this as an elaboration of ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you’ – OR does it? Does it still have the power to change things? And redefine everything that happened once revealed?

“Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?”
Pp 37-38

(any takers as to how to respond to this? Because I am stumped as well – it’s like a variation of the age old ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’)

Yet, there are instances when the author allows you to peek into his vulnerability, and you begin to get a feel of why it may be essential for him to intellectualize because he feels very strongly about Hanna, the woman in the story. It is a pubescent, utterly hormonal, unadulterated kind of longing that the middle-aged man recalls and writes about, and still haunts him up to his greying hair and lined countenance. Being abandoned by his lover transformed him into an intellectual who used philosophical queries to mask his pain. Only when I got a glimpse of that was I able to tolerate the play in pedantics and sophistic whatchamacallits.

“I adopted a posture of arrogant superiority. I behaved as if nothing could touch or shake or confuse me. I got involved in nothing, and I remember a teacher who saw through this an spoke to me about it; I was arrogantly dismissive…
… I also remember that the smallest gesture of affection would bring a lump to my throat, whether it was directed at me or at someone else. Sometimes all it took was a scene in a movie. This juxtaposition of callousness and extreme sensitivity seemed suspicious even to me.”
Pages 88-89

May-December Affair: The Picture of True Love
Admittedly, this angle in the book is what ensnared me. It is always interesting to note the power play between an older woman and a younger man – I find this infinitely more fascinating than an old man wooing a teen-aged girl. For me, the former somehow takes on the form of mentoring a young man to earthly pleasures, an acceptable (and at times, even sought for) rite of passage; while the latter appears to be mere exploitation from both ends: the old man purchasing youth with gold trinkets and a fat wad of cash.

There is one quote in the book that I can very well relate to. It is the power exercised by Hanna over the poor hapless intoxicated teen-aged boy who would do anything and everything to please her lest she turns him away. Hanna made Michael a Man. Yet Michael realizes that Hanna has always held the strings, and he the mere puppet who had to make do with whatever scraps of attention were bestowed his way:

“When I asked, she turned away my questions. We did not have a world that we shared; she gave me the space in her life that she wanted me to have. I had to be content with that. Wanting more, even wanting to know more, was presumption on my part.”
Page 77

Very beautiful. The quiet recognition and the simple acknowledgment that it is the Woman who Decides. Usually very true in cases wherein the man is the younger of the two, and there is continually the ever-pressing need to be affirmed, always seeking the approval of the Older Woman who knows better, who feels more intensely, the Mistress of his small Universe.

Michael has been forever changed by his encounter with Hanna – it is the only real, genuine, spontaneous affair that he has had in his lifetime. He merely had a series of failed relationships (including a divorce and a 5 year old daughter) and there exists an apparent undisguised discontent with lovers who do not resemble Hanna in some way: a look, a gesture, a distinctive smell. He never allowed himself to be as exposed as he was when with Hanna.

As Michael becomes older, and there is a gradual unraveling of the secrets that Hanna took pains to conceal, their relationship evolved into a different level. Michael has safely tucked her away in a little glorified immortalized corner, but he would not allow her to enter his life once more. Probably because he also does not know how. While they continue ‘corresponding’ through cassette tapes of books read aloud by Michael – thereby granting Hanna a significant chunk of his time, effort, and loving care – there is a safe distance casually, but solidly built, between them.

“I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance. I was afraid that the small, light, safe world of notes and cassettes was too artificial and too vulnerable to withstand actual closeness. How could we meet face to face without everything that had happened between us coming to the surface?”
p. 193
“I had granted Hanna a small niche, certainly an important niche, one from which I gained something and for which I did something, but not a place in my life…” page 198
“You can chase someone away by setting them in a niche.” Page 199

Again, the fear of being too close, that essentially is counterintuitive – since Hanna is as close to him as his own soul. Yet there is still the mortal and irrational fear that the recalled image will not correspond or live up to the harsh cruel light of everyday mundane realities, as seen through the carrying of grocery bags, hours spent in the bathroom, early morning breaths and spittles in one’s cheek. And so while he consciously denied her space in his life, he also denied himself unparalleled happiness. Because while he has built a life of his own, he is forever defined by Hanna, despite his being separate and distinct from her.

Morality Issues: The Faces of Evil
Stanley Milgram (the infamous Obedience experimenter) would have been fascinated with Michael Berg, the legal historian who unflinchingly made his way around the concentration camps, memories of rationing and gassing, extermination of an entire race – a world that happened before his time, to get a clearer vision of what is it about the nature of the human being that allowed him to commit such unspeakable atrocities to fellow beings.

I personally believe this to be the book’s strength, in the sense that it allows the reader to get a glimpse of what the ‘real’ face of evil appears like, rather than have another take on the survivor’s or the victim’s perspective once more – which is what made books like The Diary of Anne Frank and movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist so disturbing. This time, it is evil that speaks, moves, and locks church doors while it burns as women and children remain trapped inside. And the devil is not some proverbial horned beast with a forked tail or some crazed lunatic with deep-seated oedipal issues with his mother – but a homely familiar face that one could see in the street corner, in the barber shop, or strolling idly in a mall.

Of course this does not stop the author from exploring that seeming oversimplification, remaining horrified at the thought that it could just be as easily you or me – but merely on the other side of the moral fence. This became clearer as Michael Berg discusses the trials of the concentration camps that he avidly followed as a law student. He spoke of the ‘numbness’ that he felt as he listened to the horrors of what have been done, and wondered philosophically if it was the same ‘numbness’ that allowed the same ‘evil creatures’ to do what they have done.

“All survivor literature talks about this numbness, in which life’s functions are reduced to a minimum, behavior becomes completely selfish and indifferent to others, and gassing and burning are everyday occurrences. In the rare accounts by perpetrators, too, the gas chambers and ovens become ordinary scenery”
Page 103

There is the equally disturbing notion, then, that the unspeakable acts of violence and mass murders were not tainted by some insidiously concealed intent and cruel motivations – that one is merely doing one’s task – and nothing more. That perhaps Milgram was wrong and that it has little to do with obedience. This is explored in Michael’s discussion when he hitchhiked towards a concentration camp and came upon a man who could have been a Nazi soldier:

“You’re right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred. But executioners don’t hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same. Because they’re ordered to? You think they do it because they’re ordered to? And you think that I’m talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?” He laughed sarcastically. “No, I’m not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them, he’s not killing them because they’re in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”
Page 151

The notion that we can just as easily wear the face of evil as the face of virtue is what makes the book a compelling read. Makes one think and wonder what one sees as one looks at one’s self in the mirror each day. Passion redefined as neither good nor bad. And that the continual search for meaning may be futile. Because this may be all there is to things.


The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

2 comments on “The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

  1. Hi, Myra! Thanks for referring me to your review. I’m glad your review was exhaustive because, to be honest, I’ve heard mixed reactions towards this book. And yet I still bought it because I want to see for myself. Your review tells me what I should look for in this book. I’m also familiar with Milgram and his experiments, and I think it’s interesting that this book seems to take a different tack when it comes to explaining why the Nazis did what they did.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      I haven’t even seen the film yet! I tried watching it while on the airplane but people around me were sort of peeking into the nude scenes on my screen, I just stopped watching altogether. Hahaha. I’d love to read your thoughts on it as well. =)


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