The good part of Saturday and late afternoon of Sunday I spent reading this book. I got it at my newest favorite bookstore, the Booksale at MOA, for only Php110 bucks. I knew about this book a couple of years back as I saw Oprah recommending it in her show. I remember wanting to read it but never got the chance as I couldn't get myself hold of a copy. Then I saw it at the MOA this weekend, instantly recognized it, read the first few sentences and decided that it is worth the buy.
The prose is very easy to follow. The work is almost non-literary by nature because of the simplicity of the lines. Basically, the story is about Michael Berg and her illicit relationship with a much older woman, in fact more than half her age, Hanna Schmitz. A sexual relationship began when a 15-year old Michael visited a 36-year old Schmitz in her apartment purportedly to thank her for an earlier favor. Over the course of months to follow, Michael regularly visits Schmitz in her apartment until one day she left without a trace and a goobye.
Their relationship can be likened to that of a slave and master. Young Michael worshipped Schmitz like a Grecian goddess. He constantly yearned for the physical connection that she offered through their sexual encounters, but she refused to give him the emotional connection usually found in equal partnerships. He was blinded by his love for her and revolved his life depending on her work schedule. If her shift ends in the morning, Michael will be at her apartment at lunch time and if her work ends in the afternoon, he will come to her around dinner time. Schmitz never acknowledged him as person and dominated their shortlived affair by the power she had over his sexuality.
When she left, he was devastated. He recovered and resumed his daily routine, but he never really got over her in his entire lifetime. Of his memory of her, he says, "But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It's there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?" However, his relationships with other women always paled in comparison with the ideal "Hanna." Michael always thought they didn't move, or smell a certain way and was perpetually looking for the image of his young love in his later romantic relationships.
Michael remains unhappy for most of his life. He maintains a subtle veneer of self-confidence bordering on arrogance but inside, he experiences a deep-seated unhappiness. He muses, "Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truth? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever?"
Michael meets his lover again in a court trial. He instantly recognizes her but has no feelings left for her. Hanna Schmitz spent her time away from him working as an SS woman guard for the Third Reich. She stands accused of murdering labor camp prisoners by not allowing them to get out of a burning chapel. He attends daily the trial meetings but doesn't make an effort to communicate to her. He discovers Hanna's lifelong secret that could save her from a certain death verdict. Frau Hanna Schmitz is an illiterate. She cannot read nor write and would rather die unjustly to keep this shameful secret from the prying world. Thus, he realizes the reason behind her insistence of him reading aloud great works of literature during their trysts.
He wants to save Hanna but doesnt want to superimpose his will upon her choice of silence and shame over her knowledge disability. But in the end, he chooses to save her by telling the judge the truth of her condition and so she receives a lighter sentence, that of a lifetime imprisonment. This was his own version of revenge over Hanna's powerplay all throughout their doomed relationship, he says, "I couldn't make myself visit Hanna. But neither could I endure doing nothing....But I wasn't really concerned with justice. I couldn't leave Hanna the way she was, or wanted to be. I had to meddle with her, have some kind of influence and effect on her, if not directly then indirectly."
So in the end he has his revenge (or so he thought). He continues to have a relationship with Hanna by sending her cassette tapes of his readings of the works of great German literary writers. But he never sends her any personal greetings or messages. He doesnt want to give her a place in his life and instead provides a niche to contain their continued relationship. Just like the time she refused to acknowlege him and relegates his presence as a mere convenience or nuisance that one has to no choice but to deal with, he gives her his time and space at a distance. He doesn't really make a real connection with her.
Then, a day before Hanna Schmitz finally gets released after staying in prison for eighteen years, she commits suicide. She leaves a suicide note and specific instructions of her will to Michael but never addresses him in first person, "And tell him I say hello to him." In the end, she gets back the upperhand and control that she used to wield over him when he was still a fifteen year old pubescent kid.
I love this book. I would definitely rate it among the top ten percentile of my over-all favorite books. With parts of it being philosophical, I could imagine Sartre or Camus writing this although the real author is actually a professor and a practicing judge. What I love about it is its clarity, with words are almost naked and crystal clear in thoughts and nuances. Written and told in a first-person narrative, Michael Berg's life and thoughts progresses lucidly and unassumingly. And just like the main protagonist in the story, you will fall in love with the book's quiet and unassuming clear writing. Definitely a must read book for me.