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For 'The Reader,' Guilt Travels From Page To Screen

Bernhard Schlink says the generational complicity and coping explored in <em>The Reader</em> aren't just German topics.
Bernhard Schlink says the generational complicity and coping explored in The Reader aren't just German topics.

First published in Germany in 1995 and recently adapted to film, Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader wrestles with guilt and complicity across generations.

The novel tells the story of a 15-year-old German boy's love affair with an older woman who, he later learns, worked for the Nazis during World War II.

Schlink tells Ari Shapiro that although the book is set in Germany and centers on Nazi war crimes, it isn't about the Holocaust per se. Rather, he says, it's about "the problem of what does it mean to us [and] how do we cope with the fact that someone we love, admire [and] respect turns out to have committed an awful crime?"

Speaking as a member of Germany's "second generation" — the generation that came after World War II — Schlink explains: "It's an unsolvable problem — the second generation can't just expel the parent generation from its love and solidarity."

And yet, he says, not breaking from the guilty often means that the second generation becomes entangled in that guilt. For Schlink, the conflict came to light when he learned that one of his favorite teachers had denounced people to the Gestapo during World War II.

Schlink hopes that his fiction will help the generations to come:

"The second generation finally wasn't and isn't silenced by revulsion, shame and guilt," he says. "We all tried ... to make that past speak out for our [generation] and — even more so — the next generations."

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