Unlike ‘The Book Thief’, I read this WW2-centred novel in a mere few hours. But like ‘The Book Thief’, I wasn’t entirely impressed. In short, the characters are just so unlikeable and infuriating in their selfish detachment, I was relieved when I no longer had to concern myself with their tale.
‘The Reader’ is probably my worst experience with the Male Narrative Voice. The endless philosophising completely derailed the plot, pulling focus from the important consequences of wartime atrocity to the self-aggrandising “turmoil” of a sheltered German teen. I’m interested to see how this consistent interiority is represented in the film – likely narration, which my one Film studies lecture tells me is the death of good screenwriting.
The over-sexualisation of the mature female form in Hanna also made me distinctly uncomfortable. This gratuitous description in Part 1 really stretched the limits of a plausible teenage fascination and bordered on a voyeuristic subordination of the sexual empowered female. This is supported by Hanna’s failure to gain a voice, her illiteracy compelling Michael to speak for her and her emancipatory education in prison ending in suicide. This very tidy ending allows Michael to be free of his supposed dark sexual fantasy for older women whilst also ensuring the perpetual silencing of such women. The overwhelming Oedipal suggestion prevents a compelling psychoanalytic investigation, with Michael’s disgust at Hanna’s aged form in prison highlights the continued subjugation of women who supposedly gain agency through age.
The biggest disservice of the male narrative voice is the side-lining of survivor testimony. Michael attends all aspects of the trail but refuses to go to Israel where one of the survivors testify, suggesting her harrowing subjective experience is not worthy of his White Male German insight. His later visit to the Jewish daughter presents her as cold and unforgiving, subtly denouncing her refusal to accept Hanna’s donation when she had every right to reject charity from (largely innocent but still) complicit Germans. This predominantly female story is completely overshadowed by male explanation and gratification, effectively erasing female narratives from the extensive reach of war.
Hanna puzzles me – I don’t know whether the Michael’s narrative effectively alienates me from her, or if she is just completely incomprehensible. Is she villain or victim? She is a victim of her own ignorance, her illiteracy hidden from a “superior” society who justified the eradication of entire peoples from this supposed domination. She is also a victim of misrepresentation, Michael’s portrayal of her equally as misleading as the other accused on trial who pinned the crime on her.
The book is solely effective in prompting a nuanced representation of the complicity of German civilians during the Holocaust, aiming to show the difficult circumstances and factors which led to ordinary people committing extraordinary acts of human depravity. Despite this small inquiry, it fails to redress the balance with adequate survivor testimony, again silencing those affected in favour of the supposedly superior educated male voice.