Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink

January 2006

This was the first novel I'd read in German for a very long time, so I thought it might be slow going. I was wrong, however: Der Vorleser (The Reader in English) is a short book written with a sparseness and clarity that reads very easily. The book is narrated from the point of view of a man who, as a teenager, embarks on an affair with an older woman whose past is only revealed to him long after the affair ends: she was a Nazi guard in a concentration camp. The way in which this revelation is dealt with by the protagonist echoes the way in which the post-war generations in Germany have sought to deal with their country's dark past. This is a weighty topic, to be sure, but the novel handles it adeptly; Schlink has a remarkable ability to encapsulate tremendous moral struggles in a few sharp sentences which sting you with their truths rather than bludgeon you about the head with them. And in the end, despite the cool detachment with which the novel is narrated, the main characters exhibit a humanity and compassion which give this book a surprising emotional impact and which offer the possibility, if not of redemption, then at least of some sort of reconcilement with the past - even if the process and form of reconcilement is a painful one.

Further reading…