Winner of the Boston Review's Fisk Fiction Prize, this thematically complex story is written in clear, simple, lucid prose. It is a straightforward telling of an encounter that was to mark fifteen year old Michael Berg for life. The book, written as if it were a memoir, is divided into three parts. The first part of the book deals with that encounter.
While on his way home from school one day in post-war Germany, Michael becomes ill. He is aided by a beautiful and buxom, thirty six year old blonde named Hanna Schmitz. When he recovers from his illness, he goes to Frau Schmitz's home to thank her and eventually finds himself seduced by her and engaged in a sexual encounter. They become lovers for a period of time, and a component of their relationship was that Michael would read aloud to her. Michael romanticizes their affair, which is a cornerstone of his young life. They even go away on a trip together. Then, one day, as suddenly as she appeared in his life, she disappears, having inexplicably moved with no forwarding address.
The second part of the book deals with Michael's chance encounter with Hanna again. He is now a law student in a seminar that is focused on Germany's Nazi past and the related war trials. The students are young and eager to condemn all who, after the end of the war, had tolerated the Nazis in their midst. Even Michael's parents do not escape his personal condemnation. The seminar is to be an exploration of the collective guilt of the German people, and Michael embraces the opportunity, as do others of his generation, to philosophically condemn the older generation for having sat silently by. Then, he is assigned to take notes on a trial of some camp guards.
To his total amazement, one of the accused is Hanna, his Hanna. He stoically remains throughout the trial, realizing as he hears the evidence that she is refusing to divulge the one piece of evidence that could possibly absolve her or, at least, mitigate her complicity in the crimes with which she is charged. It is as if she considers her secret, that of her inability to read and write, more shameful than that of which she is accused. Yet, Michael, too, remains mute on the fact that would throw her legal, if not her moral, guilt into question. Consequently, Hanna finds herself bearing the legal guilt of all those involved in the crime of which she is accused and is condemned accordingly.
The third part of the book is really the way Michael deals with having found Hanna, again. He removes himself from further demonstration and discussion on the issue of Germany's Nazi past. It affects his decisions as to his career in the law, eventually choosing a legal career that is isolating. He marries and has a child but finds that he cannot be free of Hanna. He cannot be free of the pain of having loved Hanna. It is as if Hanna has marked him for life. He divorces and never remarries. It is as if he cannot love another, as he loved Hanna. Michael then reaches out to Hanna in prison, indirectly, through the secret they share of what she seems to be most ashamed. Yet, he carefully never personalizes the contact. The end, when it comes, is almost anti-climatic.
The relationship between Michael and Hanna really seems to be analogous to the relationship between the generations of Germans in post-war Germany. The affair between Michael and Hanna is representational of the affair that Germany had with the Nazi movement. The eroticism of the book is a necessary component for the collective guilt and shame that the Germans bear for the Holocaust, as well as for the moral divide that seemingly exists between the generations. Yet, the book also shows that such is not always a black and white issue, that there are sometimes gray areas when one discusses one's actions in the context of the forces of good and evil. There is also the issue of legal and moral responsibility. One would think that the two are synonymous, but they are not always so. It also philosophizes on the ability to love another/a nation who/that was complicit in war crimes. This is an insightful, allegorical book that defies categorizing. It is also a book that is a wonderful selection for a reading circle, as it has a wealth of issues that are ripe for discussion. This is simply a superlative book. Bravo!