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The Reader

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n part II, chapter eight of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, the first-person narrator Michael describes reading the account written by a concentration camp who had survived along with her mother, the soul survivors in a large group of women who were being marched away from the camp. He says, "the book...creates distance. It does not invite one to identify with it and makes no one sympathetic..." The same could be said of The Reader. The book is written in such a way as to distance one from the characters. It prevents people from sympathizing with Hanna or Michael or anyone else, taking a sort of detached viewpoint from their problems. This can be paralleled to the efforts of the German people towards Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or "coping with the past." In coping with Germany's Nazi history, the Germans attempted to distance themselves from it and the moral implications it presented. They tried to understand it without involving themselves in it, since involving themselves could implicate them. The one person in the book who cannot distance herself, Hanna, is still unsympathetic because everyone else distances themselves from her, making it impossible to sympathize with any aspect of her plight. Hanna is symbolic of German history in this respect.

As the narrator, Michael is particularly hard to sympathize with. The way he guides the story eschews emotional attachment. He himself feels detached from almost everything: "....I felt nothing: my feelings were numbed." His detachment transfers to the readers. None of his traits, or any of the situations he comes up against, makes one feel particularly sorry for him. Nothing makes one want to understand what he's going through or where he's coming from. He is simply there, dictating the story, telling us about his feelings without us getting involved. Further alienating is his tendency to fall into tangents which don't relate to the main narrative. These tangents are even harder to muster interest in than the true point of the book and don't serve any discernible purpose, in the end causing us to separate even further from the story.

Michael's feelings of numbness and alienation--and, subsequently, the feelings of numbess and alienation that are produced in the book's audience--reflect the attempts made by the German people to distance themselves from the spectres of the Nazi past. By detaching and looking at it emotionlessly, they felt, it would be easier to shove it away and ignore it. The past became a sort of gap in German history, a break extending from the end of the Weimar Republic to the Allied occupation. In this sense, the past was not "dealt with" at all, no Vergangenheitsbewältigung took place; the whole matter was sort of shoved aside on an emotional level. This is not true of everyone, perhaps, but Michael's detachment is meant to symbolize the feelings, or lack thereof, of the majority. He attempts to enter the fervor of his fellow students but cannot hold it long; he attempts to condemn Hanna outright but finds he cannot. He cannot successfully bring the past into the emotional realm.

Hanna is just the opposite. She cannot help but bring the past into the emotional realm, because she was there. She experienced it first-hand, and was indeed a part of it--perhaps not an integral part, but it cannot be denied that she took a hand in supporting the Nazis; she was an officer of the SS. She is a living symbol of Germany's Nazi era and therefore inseparable from it. However, everyone else wishes to separate from her, to sentence her and imprison her and forget about her. She is made into a representation of all that the German people wish to leave behind.

Because of that, however, Hanna is just as unsympathetic as Michael is. Since everyone wants to be detached from her, that's exactly what happens to the audience as well; they become attached from Hanna and unable to feel for her or even care about what she's going through. The readers become as aloof as Michael, seeing the situation only through his emotionless eyes. His former love for Hanna totally fails to register during the trial and sentencing, even when he sends her the tapes; he is merely going through the motions the entire time. If there is any feeling behind his actions, the audience is unable to perceive it, therefore making it irrelevant overall. Michael's aloofness consumes his narration and forms a barrier against caring about anything that happens. Thus, Hanna is dealt with the way Germany tries to deal with its tarnished history: it is separated from, suppressed, and forgotten. The war crimes trials are held and a new government with new laws is put into place; on a parallel level, Hanna is imprisoned--and then later kills herself, preventing her memory from surviving even after her release is granted. Although Michael does make a donation in her name to a literacy program, the gesture is tacked on and after the fact, quickly losing any value it might've had as a memorial.

Overall, attempts at establishing sympathy towards the characters of this book are ineffective. This does not make the book a bad one, for it is in a way a reflection of the way many Germans tried to come to terms with the Nazi past. It expresses the peoples' alienation and the desire to just forget about everything that happened. While one might argue that that is not the best approach to Vergangenheitsbewältigung, it is nonetheless the one presented in the book.

(The Reader, Bernhard Schlink)

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