Yes, I am fully aware that I’m about ten years late on reading this book. But I assure you I have a good reason. Ok, so I don’t really have a good reason, but I have a reason. See, I have tried to read this book two other times, but couldn’t get through it. Not because of the writing – it is exquisite. I couldn’t get through it because of my language barrier. Somewhere along the line (probably around 2001) I decided that I needed to read books written by German authors in German (I also decided I needed to read cheesy romance novels and YA lit like Harry Potter in German so that I wouldn’t be so “embarrassed” by reading them. Well, I got over that about six years ago). So I’ve tried to read the original version of The Reader (Der Vorleser) on two other occasions. I could get through the first few chapters, but then I was confronted with words and concepts that I didn’t understand – especially when Michael is in law school and discusses abstract concepts. Anyway, I finally decided that I really wanted to read the book and I “wussed out” and read it in English.
I’m so glad I did. What a beautiful novel about life, hardships and how our perceptions of people can be completely wrong for the silliest/craziest reasons! This book reminds me quite a bit of the movie Crash because it takes difficult situations and looks at them deeply and honestly. Anna’s reasons for working at Kraków had nothing to do with her political leanings or beliefs, but people were (and can still be) so blinded by the atrocities of WWII they couldn’t see the truth. Not that I think what happened to the millions of people persecuted during the Holocaust is in anyway acceptable. What bothers me the most in many cases is that when we look back on history, we blanket what happened and blame haphazardly – much like Michael found himself doing in the book. He wanted to blame his parents for not doing more, and he wanted to find Anna guilty. And in many ways, he can and did. But he realized, as I hope we can continue to realize as we examine history honestly, that their guilt is not as simple as it seems. Fear, hunger and oppression were not hardships faced only by the prisoners of those camps. Fear, hunger and oppression don’t make any of the events of WWII acceptable, but trying to understand what daily life was like for Germans during that time helps us understand how they could allow such things to happen. And if nothing, understanding the why of the every day person during that time will help us identify the possibility of it happening again in the future. Hopefully, we can see that when a people are hungry, jobless and scared, leadership can come in and take advantage of that weakness, and disaster can ensue if we aren’t careful.
Ok, so back to the book. Michael is a young man who, early in life, has an affair with a much older woman. As their relationship progresses Anna has Michael read to her – something that Michael perceives as romantic and loving. Later in life, Anna is put on trial for crimes she committed as a guard at the Kraków work camp near Auschwitz. Michael, a young law student, attends her trial and tries to reconcile this new Anna with the old Anna. He realizes, during her trial, that she is covering up a secret that is much deeper and darker than he could have imagined, but her shame in both her actions as an officer and her secret confuse him and he is at a loss for what to do for her.
The ironic part of my experience reading this book is the fact that I shied away from it because of my “reading barrier”. I could have experience this book in all it’s splendor years ago but I didn’t because of my stupid bilingual pride. And now that I’ve finished the book, I’m left with the question – am I really that different from Anna? Granted, I didn’t work at Kraków, and I’d like to think I have enough humanity to save people from atrocities. But reading and good literature are such a huge part of my life, yet I’ve kept myself from so much great literature with my stupid rule. Now I’m moved to try to find other areas of my life where I’ve unknowingly created barriers for myself. And I totally plan to read the original version now so I can look at his writing style!