Summer Intern

‘THE READER'

To say that Bernhard Schlink’s book The Reader is a love story that turns into a Holocaust novel may be glib, but it isn’t completely inaccurate. The plot unfolds in two distinct sections. First, in the late 1950s, a German youngster of fifteen, Michael Berg, has an intensely sexual affair with a thirtyish streetcar conductor named Hanna Schmitz. After a summer of bedroom gymnastics and emotional bonding cemented, at her request, by the boy’s reading aloud to her from classic books, Hanna leaves town without warning or explanation. Michael feels not only abandoned but also so wounded that he becomes permanently shy of emotional attachments. End of part one.

Eight years later, Michael, now a law student, attends the war-crimes trial of several female SS guards accused of letting Jewish women and children burn to death in a locked church during an Allied firebombing. Hanna is among those in the dock, and the other defendants insist that she was the leader of the guards and the author of a self-exculpating report. Since she ceases to defend herself once the subject of the report is broached, Hanna gets a life sentence while the other defendants get more lenient prison terms.

Piecing together the court’s evidence with his memories of Hanna’s behavior during their affair, Michael realizes that his former lover is illiterate, that she therefore couldn’t have written the report, and that...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.