Lauren Rabaino

In an era when the heat of the so-called “culture wars” has helped foster a rather drearily pervasive black and white, us-versus-them mentality regarding both history and contemporary public policy, it may be quite tempting to overlook the complexity and humanity of those on the opposite side of a political struggle. Moral ambiguity, after all, is hardly an ingredient for great ratings in the realm of political talk radio and cable news.

It can, however, be an ingredient for great drama and insight in the realm of literature, especially when the author is willing to confront the full human dimensions and unresolved questions involved in the defining event of a nation’s troubled past. Such is the case with “The Reader,” Bernhard Schlink’s haunting love story/courtroom drama set in a postwar Germany in which the war continues to cast a profound shadow.

While on his way home from school one day, 15-year-old Michael becomes weak from undiagnosed hepatitis. An attractive 36-year-old streetcar conductor named Hanna helps him out, bringing him back to her apartment where he can rest until he has the strength to return home. Months later, a recovered Michael returns to her apartment, bearing flowers to thank her for her kindness. The cool and enigmatic Hanna soon initiates an affair with him, one marked by a curious, though highly erotic, ritual in which she bathes him, they make love, and then he reads classic literature to her while they lie in bed. Enraptured in the

relationship, Michael willingly overlooks his lover’s darker shades, such as her rigid silence regarding her past and her occasional verbal abusiveness and suspiciousness toward him. And then, one day, Hanna suddenly and simply vanishes without a trace, leaving a bewildered Michael to grieve her absence.

Many years later, Michael, now a law student, is sent to observe a trial where, to his horror and amazement, Hanna is one of several defendants charged with a particularly gruesome crime. But as he watches the case unfold, he begins to suspect her role in the crime might not fit into the traditional categories of guilty or not guilty, and that her inexplicable refusal to defend herself might be rooted in an element of their affair long ago, the significance of which he is able grasp only in retrospect.

Crisply divided into three parts, each of which represents a key point of Michael’s life and Hanna’s influence on it, “The Reader” manages to be both a personal story of two individuals and a political allegory about one generation grappling with the sins of another (“the past which brands us and with which we must live”). Written in understated, economical prose (and gracefully translated from its original German by Carol Brown Janeway), the book deftly builds its characters and story page by page until reaching a final sentence simultaneously concise, evocative and devastating. And very, very moving.

Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book reviewer.

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