28. “The Reader”, Bernhard Schlink

I pretty much live under a pop culture rock most of the time, so I didn’t know anything about the movie adaptation of this book, which allowed me to approach it fresh. The first part was pretty boring (there are only so many ways to say “they read, took, a bath, and had sex, even though she’s kind of awful”), but it was at least quick. The second and third parts were much more interesting. The entire book took only a few hours to read.

This is (the culture would like us to believe) tangential to the book, but I’m always concerned that people aren’t more concerned about portrayals of sexual abuse of young people by women. She was forty-something, he was fifteen. Say whatever else you will, their power is not equally distributed. We don’t accept without comment even literary portrayals of a man and a child. The lack of comment on this sort of abuse bothers me. In the end, there was a condemnation of their relationship, but still no analysis of their age difference in monumentally messing him up.

Content-wise, I thought the question the narrator poses on page 169 (“How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them– how could they have anything to say to their children?”) was an important one. The narrator explores the hatred he and his peers had for their parents– even when their parents didn’t commit any objective wrong-doing. They got off on accusing their parents of crimes of the above sort because it was their way of disavowing themselves of the Nazi’s crimes (just as looking away or tolerating or accepting was the Nazi’s contemporaries way of doing the same). On 171, the narrator reflects on the fact that his family didn’t actually do anything wrong, and thus he couldn’t hate them effectively. Instead, the pain he goes through because of the love he feels for Hanna, who did do something wrong, was “the fate of his generation.” His only regret is that he experienced his pain long after his peers had. “It would have been good for me to be able to feel back then that I was apart of my generation,” he reflects.

As a queer Jewish person, I am interested in justice for the members of my cultural and symbolic (though, thankfully, not genealogical) family. As a person who has taken a damn survey course that discussed World Wars I and II, I am terrified by the scapegoating of Germans that still persists; it didn’t go so well the first time around. I don’t think that we find the answer in pointing at people and groups and trying to hold them guilty. We were all culpable. We continue to be culpable because we continue to exist in a culture of violent hatred of the Other. It is the great shame of an entire world that we could witness the murder of millions of people and continue to wage more of the same wars, and continue to look away from those wars for as long as possible.

Page count: 218
Page total: 14,925

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