The award-winning novel ‘The Reader’ was written by Bernhard Schlink who happens to be a German law professor and judge. It is small wonder that the novel is suffused with the topic of Holocaust guilt. In fact, ‘The Reader’ sags so heavily beneath the weight of the subject of guilt. Hanna (played in the movie adaptation by Kate Winslet which bagged for her a first Oscar award) is guilty of war crimes. Her young paramour Michael is guilty of betrayal. Michael’s father is guilty of ineffectiveness as a father. Everyone is guilty. Even the Holocaust survivors reel in survivor guilt.
‘The Reader’ is legal practitioner Schlink’s own mental and spiritual terrain of guilt. The Holocaust’s damage is, indeed, as deep as the core of the earth.
The story of ‘The Reader’ begins in Germany after the Second World War. In 1958, Michael Berg was a middle-class, 15-year old boy living in West Germany. Recovering from a prolonged illness, he meets a 38-year old working-class woman named Hanna Schmitz.
Returning from school, the teenager Michael suddenly feels ill and finds Hanna, a stranger who was more than double his age, helping him to get home. Thus starts a passionate romance between the two. Michael discovers that Hanna loves to read and discovers, too, for himself a profound physical relationship with an enigmatic older woman.
However, Hanna soon disappears, leaving the young Michael devastated and confused.
Eight years later, law student Michael attends the trials for Nazi war crimes and meets Hannah once more. This time, she is a defendant.
The subject of Holocaust guilt has been mined a thousand times in art and literature. ‘The Reader,’ just like William Styron’s ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ is one shining example that the mine is of gold.