Friday, May 15, 2009

A German Fate?

" ... the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate ..."The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (Random House, Inc., 1995) 218 pages
I must say I don't fully understand the furor over the film - the venom it seemed to inspire when it was released last year. It ended up on the list of worst films of the year etc ... Is it the fact that a German writer dared to create a somewhat sympathetic portrait of an ex-Nazi guard and the boy who loved her? One article mentioned that some objected to it "for affording Germans an easy way out of their feelings of guilt by turning them into 'victims' of the Nazi regime". It was described by as "The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made".

I think this book serves as a metaphor for all the German youth of Schlink's generation who came to find out that those they loved had a hidden Nazi past - parents, beloved teachers, grandparents, respected authority figures. And the damage that that knowledge did to them. The Germans have a very specific word for dealing with Holocaust guilt and the past: "Vergangenheitsbewältigung"

The argument is particularly relevant in that John Demjanjuk is still very much in the news.

I won't detail the whole plot of the book again as I think I have covered it fairly thoroughly in my review of the film a few months ago. The film is quite faithful to the book and I think it is superior. The writing is not spectacular nor particularly beautiful but offers a unique and very powerful set of events.

Set in the 1950s in Germany, fifteen year old Michael Berg's initial sexual relationship with Hanna Schmitz begins a lifelong relationship with a damaged, lonely woman hiding a number of secrets. The boy is lovingly portrayed here: sensitive, passionate and intelligent. Hanna is, by turns, volatile, cold, jealous, demanding, tender, and has a complete hold on the boy's psyche. For me, it is not so much what transpires here on these pages but what remains unsaid by both characters that affects me most.

Why does Hanna disappear from his life without leaving Michael a word or sign? We find out much later.

What was Hanna's motivation, as an SS guard, in taking the most fragile, vulnerable girls and having them read to her before they were shipped to Auschwitz? Did she seek to alleviate the suffering of their final days or eliminate them quickly before her secret was found out? We know Michael's theories but never learn what was in Hanna's mind. This is not a criticism of the novel but an observation.

Why did Michael assume that the man who gave him a ride to the concentration camp was guilty of some war crime or atrocity when he mentioned the camps and the killing of Jews? Is it because, as a German, he sees all Germans as complicit. Indeed, we never learn the truth about this mysterious stranger except that he is outraged at the suggestion. But perhaps: "Pointing at the guilty parties did not free us from shame, but at least it overcame the suffering we went through on account of it."

Michael wonders of his generation, "Was their disassociation of themselves from their parents mere rhetoric: sounds and noise that were supposed to drown out the fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes?"

Why didn't Michael save Hanna when he learned her secret and could, at the very least, lessen her prison sentence with his knowledge? Did he want to be be spared from the association from this presumed heartless war criminal? Was he so repulsed by her history that he could not even bear to try and save her?

After she is released he seems alternately drawn to her still and repulsed. Is it moral repulsion or physical repulsion too? Cannot bear to look at the woman that once meant so much to him?

These are intriguing questions which lingered long after I finished the book.

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