Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Reader - Pithy and Poignant

Pithy – Concise and expressive; Poignant – evoking a keen sense of sadness. This is how my Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines these words and this is exactly how I feel now after completing ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink. Some novels leave me drained emotionally and in a sense physically too though in a strange fashion. I get so involved in them that to be disturbed from reading kindles unreasonable anger and a strange state of weariness. I become irritable and often find myself at a loss to respond to any conversation.

This novel would squarely fall under that category. With its pithy prose and taut flow, it was unputdownable and intellectually stimulating, always pushing the borders. Some readers of this post would have seen the movie though I haven’t. I would like to hear from those who have seen it on how they felt. I am very curious to see the movie now because to capture such a novel in visual form would require great skill and craft.

Coming to the novel, Hannah is a woman who has worked as a prison guard in the SS during the Nazi period. Post war, she leads a routine life until she meets Michael, a 15 year old in strange circumstances. What follows is a period of lovemaking – Michael wants to feel grown up, is eager to forget his illness and finds in Hannah an attractive Woman who is determined and forceful in a manner that is seductive. He is eager to please her and wants to be in her good books.

Hannah indulges in this “kid”, their difference in age rarely getting in the way of each other’s needs. Slowly, he begins to read to her from novels which she encourages and admires. Years later, Michael meets Hannah in quite different circumstances when the past seems to have caught up with her and she is charged with the crime of standing by indifferently when several prisoners are engulfed by flames. The circumstances of their death make her seem brutal while nobody could comprehend the reality in a way Hannah seems to.

She has a secret: her illiteracy. She guards it with a determination that is self destructive. When Michael comes to know about it, he is confronted with several moral questions. Should he against Hannah’s wishes try to save her? Is she a criminal? Did she have any alternative when flames were engulfing the innocent prisoners? What is the role of law in retrospectively delivering justice? What is the moral position of people who looked the other side when the establishment cruelly targeted a community?

In raising all these questions, there is a never a discordant note. Michael is unable to lead a normal life; Hannah follows him in his memories whatever he does. The writing is beautiful in several parts when the author unravels the working of the mind.

“But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.”

“Is this what sadness is all about? Is it what comes over us when beautiful memories shatter in hindsight because the remembered happiness fed not just on actual circumstances but on a promise that was not kept?”

Towards the end of the novel, I was overcome with sadness at Hannah’s fate. The manner in which we take others for granted, assume things about people without ever confronting is conveyed so matter-of-factly that it deserves a place among the very best books I have read.

In categorizing books we make the mistake of choosing words that are worn with overuse. While talking about them, we make the same mistakes. ‘The Reader’ presents a complexity that is quintessential here. This is a must read for any serious book lover. It tells a story that would have a resonance with every man and woman!

There is always a greater satisfaction I experience from reading literature that is not contemporary. Is it because such books satiate a yearning within me that is hard to define or is it because contemporary subjects don’t afford the pen a certain gravity and poise? The question is open and answers are welcome…


The Layman said...

I saw the movie and I haven't read the novel.

To be honest, it was a very good movie which managed to touch the right chords. But I doubt whether it has captured the intensity of the relationship between Hannah and Michael going by your description of the novel.

Don't keep your expectations too high and I'm sure it would be acceptable if not impressive.

There is always a greater satisfaction I experience from reading literature that is not contemporary. Is it because such books satiate a yearning within me that is hard to define or is it because contemporary subjects don’t afford the pen a certain gravity and poise?

A very interesting question because I feel the same about literature/movies based on contemporary events. I have always felt that it is the strong desire to know a past of which we were never a part. To know about the times in which our parents and grand parents lived. Probably in search of an innocence in people, places...

When everything is available in abundance, the charm goes out of things. I have always felt it makes our life ordinary.

I dont know if I am making sense. Probably it is just a race against time. To know people, places and events who we can never meet ..

A strange love for things lost and forgotten.

Shiva said...

Thanks Layman for your take on the movie. Hope to see it soon...

On the yearning for the past, I think your point is very good. It does play a major part..the longing to somehow get a window into the events of the past... and books fill the void quite well!