The Reader (Bernhard Schlink): Excerpt

From Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader:

“What happened at the selections?”

Hanna described how the guards had agreed among themselves to tally the same number of prisoners from their six equal areas of responsibility, ten each and sixty in all, but that the figures could fluctuate when the number of sick was low in one person’s area of responsibility and high in another’s, and that all the guards on duty had decided together who was to be sent back.

“None of you held back, you all acted together?”


“Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?”

“Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones.”

“So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?”

Hanna didn’t understand what the presiding judge was getting at.

“I…I mean…so what would you have done?” Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.

Everything was quiet for a moment. It is not the custom at German trials for defendants to question the judges. But now the question had been asked, and everyone was waiting for the judge’s answer. He had to answer; he could not ignore the question or brush it away with a reprimand or a dismissive counterquestion. It was clear to everyone, it was clear to him too, and I understood why he had adopted an expression of irritation as his defining feature. It was his mask. Behind it, he could take a little time to find an answer. But not too long; the longer he took, the greater tension and expectation, and the better his answer had to be.

“There are matters one simply cannot get drawn into, that one can distance oneself from, if the price is not life and limb.”

Perhaps this would have been all right if he had said the same thing, but referred directly to Hanna or himself. Talking about what “one” must and must not do and what it costs did not do justice to the seriousness of Hanna’s question. She had wanted to know what she should have done in her particular situation, not that there are things that are not done. The judge’s answer came across as hapless and pathetic. Everyone felt it. They reacted with sighs of disappointment and stared in amazement at Hanna, who had more or less won the exchange. But she herself was lost in thought.

“So should I have…should I have not…should I not have signed up at Siemens?”

It was not a question directed at the judge. She was talking out loud to herself, hesitantly, because she had not yet asked herself that question and did not know whether it was the right one, or what the answer was.

[The reference to signing up at Siemens is to her signing up with the SS when it recruited workers from the Siemens factory where she had been working.]


  1. Did you like The Reader, Mich? I found it a little unbelievable that Hanna would have made it to being a tram-driver, being illiterate as she was, and that she would have rather have admitted to doing what she did than not being able to read. Hmm. Worth reading though.

  2. She didn’t make it to tram driver, she got detained while the company was trying to persuade her to embark on that training.

    I do agree to some extent that her choice seems a little incredible, but I think the character is drawn with enough depth, yet enough left unexplained, that all sorts of slightly more credible interpretations can be made as to why she made that choice.

    Maybe it ties in with her confusion in the passage I quoted, as to what she should have done. Some things revealed at the end suggest she wanted to confront the horror she was a part of – in prison, she read extensively about the camps. Whether or not she wrote the damning report is arguably irrelevant in the larger context of her involvement.

    Does any of this make sense? And yes, worth reading.

  3. I rather liked The Reader.

    Um this is just to say hi and that I feel compelled to tell people I read their blogs, just in case they wanted to know who their readers were. Oh and – in response to an earlier entry – I have old Yo La Tengo CDs (not the newish one that came out last year, though), are you interested?

  4. yen: Do you have Fakebook? When you ask if I’m interested, do you mean in buying or borrowing? Either way, yes!

  5. Um fraid not; have only Painful and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Thought I had I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, but it turns out I was imagining things. And I meant borrow. :)

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