Books in translation have a hard road to travel: they have to retain their quality and depth while being worked into an unintended language. Anyone who understands a second language winces at the cinema as the subtitles of a movie lack the depth, subtlety or specificity of the original language on the screen.
I would like to blame Bernhard Schlink’s flatness on the translation and hope the original German relays more of the character’s humanity and depth. I fear that is not the case. I fear, instead, the narrator, the author, did not get close enough to the characters or the story to reveal enough to engage me, let alone let me understand their motivation for such odd actions. The resolution was unsatisfying, incomplete.
In The Reader, an adult Michael recalled his relationship with Hanna that started with their chance encounter on the steps of her apartment building. He was sick and she helped him. When he returned later to thank her, he got dirty helping her in her with chores and she offered to wash his clothes and bathe him — a bizarre leap for a 15-year-old boy and a woman old enough to be his mother.
I never understood the relationship because there never appeared to be a connection or passion between them (and I never could get past their ages at the start of the situation). The story of a teenage boy was told by his adult self and the narrator never allowed readers either in the present or in the past. The narrator kept a distance between the reader and himself at every age. Indeed, the narrator keeps distance between himself (and, subsequently, the reader) and every other person in his world. I never got close enough to understand if it was the nature of the narrator or the shortcoming of the author.
The book is completely void of the smoldering eroticism described on the book jacket. The descriptions of their sexual encounters were cool, distanced, like everything else in the book.
Finally, The Secret was not enough of a shocker for me to consider it with a capital-S. Although Hanna’s deficiency was surprising for that moment in history, it is not enough for most people to keep secret at the cost of their reputation and personal liberty. Plus, a woman who would molest a young boy has bigger secrets than the one that sent her to prison for nearly two decades.
Most stories set in Germany during and immediately after World War II feel the need to address The Question: how could an entire nation allow the Holocaust? Michael was a teen and blissfully unaware; indeed, his self-centeredness was stifling and nearly cauterizing, but not completely unrealistic for a boy coming of age. Later, he took his parents’ generation to task for their sins — but not Hanna, who was of their generation and actually accused of crimes. He refused his grandfather’s blessing, he would not address his father, but he separated Hanna from the adult fray. I wonder why he afforded her such unwarranted innocence (lack of guilt or guile, not ignorance) — because he chose to see her as a contemporary, or because her Secret made her an innocent, a brainless idiot who allowed herself to be railroaded because she was not intelligent enough to understand the case and the world around her?
I have no idea why Oprah would choose this book over so many other better ones. Her selection of non-English authors in the past was more unerring, as with Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, a haunting and rewarding read.
In the end, the book was uninspiring, uninteresting and a complete puzzle not worth trying to unravel.
Postscript (1/7/08): The Reader is being made into a movie which as of early January 2008, would star Nicole Kidman. I'm sure it's because Carole read it. Practically every book she reads is made into a movie.