Tuesday, August 9, 2016

No Excuse

Followed up my reading of Hearts In Atlantis with the deceptively slight looking The Reader by Bernhard Schlink - the basis of the film starring Kate Winslet which I've never seen but which I know got a fair bit of publicity via the Oscars a couple of years back. When marking IB stuff I've noticed a couple of schools have adopted this as a text in translation which, I must say, I find a bit surprising giving the somewhat erotic content, especially of the first part. Now having read the novel I'm further surprised in that it doesn't strike me as a particularly literary kind of work; rather it's one of those texts that clearly lends itself to discussion of issues, presumably the reason some teachers have leapt upon it for use in the classroom.
One of the things that Schlink does extremely well, it seems to me, is to ground his slant-wise treatment of the horrors of the Holocaust in the everydayness of German life. In his depiction of Hanna, the ex-concentration guard, he gives us an entirely believable portrait of a perfectly ordinary, almost dull young woman, who gets caught up in what are rendered as imaginable horrors, whilst maintaining a sense of the inexpressible extent of the suffering involved in that dreadful time. Partly this is done through the almost forensic detachment of his narrator, but there's more to the power of the novel than that.

A further clue to its lingering impact comes in the brief episode in which the narrator encounters one of the Jewish survivors, to whom Hanna has willed some money. The absolute truth of that encounter in terms of the survivor's sour response to the legacy is a reflection of the honesty of the text as a whole. Ultimately it's an extraordinarily troubling novel because it doesn't seek to provide explanations or excuses. For some stories there can be no closure.

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