Books: Ways of telling it slant

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink trs Carol Brown Janeway, Phoenix House pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
To Write a novel concerned with the Holocaust requires some daring, particularly when it comes to evoking Nazi sympathisers. Facing yourself with such a project, you might fall silent. Bernhard Schlink, following Emily Dickinson's dictum of telling the truth but telling it slant, employs silence as one of his telling images. Confronting the silence of murdered Jews, the brutal enforcement of forbidden speech, he pits the guilty silence of a perpetrator against the hungry silence of an illiterate, the sly silence of collaborators against the shrieking silence of those erased from history. He does this in a novel so full of words, so apparently chatty, that it takes the reader some time to work out the areas where nothing, necessarily, can be said.

Appropriately enough, the story reads like a confession, a piece of testimony in court. It all leads up to the actual appearance in court of one of the two main protagonists. At the beginning, however, we encounter a love affair.

A schoolboy in West Germany just after the war, Michael collapses in the street one day with the onset of hepatitis. A woman he's never met before rescues him. She takes him home to her flat and looks after him, cleaning up his vomit and consoling him with a rough hug before sending him back to his parents. One he has recovered, Michael goes back to her flat, on his mother's advice, to thank her. He becomes intrigued by Hanna, this strong, good-looking woman in her mid-thirties who lives alone and works as a tram-conductor, and the rough intimacy of their first, chance, encounter develops into the closeness and passion of a full love affair, clandestine and tender.

One of the lovers' rituals concerns reading. Michael, who is still a student and devoted to reading in a way he can take for granted, discovers what pleasure he can give Hanna by reading aloud to her. Their love-making becomes intertwined with fictional plots: "So reading to her, showering with her, making love to her, and lying next to her for a while afterwards, that became the ritual in our meetings." The idyll continues. They even manage a few days' holiday together, posing as mother and son in order to share hotel rooms.

Hanna's disinclination to talk much about herself, or her past, is interpreted by Michael as a sign of her healthy involvement in the present. Hanna comes across as a touching and intriguing character whose worst sin is to let an under-aged boy of 15 act out his desire to make love to her. The relationship seems totally plausible.

After Hanna vanishes suddenly from his life, Michael pursues his law studies. When he encounters Hanna again, it's in a law court; she's a defendant in a major trial, accused of terrible crimes. Here the novel breaks down, or at least its language does. It is impossible for Michael simply to go on recounting what happened next. This is not a fairy tale. So he, or perhaps his author, adopts, under constraint, the discourse of philosophy. The focus shifts from one suffering individual to the fate of millions. Yet Hanna, complicit in genocide, retains a bewildered dignity; this, for Michael, is almost intolerable. He recognises the secret she has carried all these years, buried even deeper than the fact of her guilt. Written in the plainest possible prose (in a convincing and unobtrusive translation) this is a novel which goes on bothering you long after you've put it down.