Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

(Film tie-in edition, Phoenix 2008; £7.99; 240pp)

Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

I have to admit, my three main reasons for reading this book were: a) the huge popularity of the film, b) my admiration for both Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, who star in it, and c) the word 'Schlink', which can be pronounced in all sorts of amusing ways and bears a pleasing resemblance to 'slinky'. I wasn't that keen to read it for itself. Books about the Holocaust don't appeal to me: my granny can tell me as much about that as I need to know, and I wasn't keen on meeting a fictional character who carried some weight of responsibility for my great-great-grandmother's death. My mum had also read the first part of it and said the translation was clunky and unnatural, and not bothered to finish it, which for a book so short and a reader so avid is ominous.

But anyway. I picked it up off our table and read it. It's a quick enough read: only 220 pages' (the other 20 pages are filled with rather patronising reading group notes) worth of quite widely-spaced text, with chapters that are only three or four pages long. A couple of hours is more than enough. For those of you who haven't been saturated with the story: fifteen-year-old Michael Berg has a highly sexualised fling with a woman named Hanna, who likes him to read books aloud to her in between snoozing and bathing and shagging. Then one day she abruptly leaves town. Michael goes on to university, then law school, and ends up one day at the trial of several female ex-Nazi guards. Hanna is among them, and he watches silently as she is sentenced.

There is a twist, which I knew before I started reading the book - and which, frankly, isn't that difficult to guess, though of course I knew what I was looking for. In fact, that was the huge problem I found reading this book: because it's quite short and the film has been so well publicised, there wasn't much about the plot I didn't already know. The best parts lay in the bits I wasn't expecting: there's a touching scene where Michael asks his philosopher father to help him solve a moral dilemma, for instance, and I loved the sparsely-drawn but surprisingly memorable governor of the prison where Hanna ends up. I couldn't help agreeing with my mum on the stylistics of the book, but I think there's a bit more to it than bad translation: the prose is abrupt, and in places comes across as emotionally sterile because Schlink doesn't give much away on, for instance, the relationship between Michael and his parents (until the lovely scene with his father), or the abortive friendships he forms at school. Still, I'm inclined to give Schlink the benefit of the doubt and believe that this is part of Michael's personality: by his own admission, he tends to think too much with the head and not enough with the heart, so any story he writes will naturally be analytical, concise and, for want of a better word, very 'German'.

Indeed, you can feel the writer's nationality in the translation (I couldn't help but imagine Hanna speaking with a German accent, which didn't seem right to me) - but unless we want to get into the huge translation debate and argue that it's better to give a text a new, 'British' identity rather than attempting, and inevitably failing, to retain its original 'German' one, I don't think this is necessarily a fault. The book itself is about the generation whose parents served for and collaborated with the Nazis, their shame and guilt, so in this case its German character carries meaning in itself.

In writing this review I've realised that I actually liked the book much more than I either expected to or thought I had while I was reading it. It doesn't pretend to be much more than a novella (although the publishers make some attempt at this pretence with the luxurious spacing and thick paper - it looks much more than 240 pages long), and whilst the moral discussion is rather thinly-disguised as the character's rather than the author's, the plotline is simple and sticks to a small, exquisitely-complicated part of its characters' psyche. Hanna is, quite frankly, a brilliant character: unmistakeably womanly yet curiously childlike, violent, earnest and beautiful. The third section of the book, where she is in prison, was for me its triumph, the most convincing and poignant. This book grows on you, and though I might not wholeheartedly share the ravings of the reviews quoted inside the cover ("Read it ... and read it again"), I would suggest that there are far worse ways to quietly pass a Sunday afternoon than this thoughtful, decidedly un-slinky book.

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