RH: Because you're primarily known in Germany as a writer of
popular crime fiction, did The Reader catch your readers off
BS: Not really. My mysteries are not entirely orthodox insofar
as they don't just tell the story of a crime, they also deal with recent
German history. So this wasn't too far out for [readers]. But the
audience I've reached with this book is much bigger than the
audience I'd reached with my mysteries.
RH: Michael's narration of the story, which is very interior in its
focus, creates a very contemplative and introspective mood.
BS: You can't remember things that really played a major role
in your life without contemplation and reflection. I think there's no
such thing as a pure memory.
RH: And that contemplation seems crucial to the way modern
Germans approach the problem of their past and their immediate
BS: It's been one of the big subjects for my generation. For
many families it's a personal issue, because it pits fathers against
their children. One of my favorite teachers, the one who taught me
English, taught me to love the English language, also taught us
gymnastics and we could see his SS tattoo. One way or the other, we
all had to confront it not as a theoretical abstract, but as a very real
and personal problem.
RH: Has it been dealt with in German literature prior to your
novel? Part of the problem for American readers is that, even if this
was extensively discussed in Germany, we would know almost next
to nothing about that because our exposure to European literature is
BS: There were many books right after the war, and then we
didn't have very many books in the '50s and early '60s. The
literature from the '60s to the '80s is mainly about the Holocaust
itself. The Reader is one of the first books, I think, that
addresses how the generation that came after deals with what the
previous generation did. And that's why I think the book has found
the interest it's found. My generation, and also the generation after
mine, wanted something that deals with the question of how we cope
with the Holocaust and the participation of our role models in it.
RH: Perhaps these questions gain a certain prominence in German
culture today as an effect of reunification, as Germans are forced to
ask themselves what it is to be one Germany again.
BS: I think that's right, but reunification also raises questions
about Germany from abroad. There are new concerns, new interests,
and new questions about how the rest of Europe and America will
live with a unified Germany. And in what used to be the GDR, the
question of how one deals with the past is again a very real, up-to-
date question with the aftermath of the collapse of Communism, and
comparisons -- valid or not -- are inevitable. But we all have to
recognize that Germany is a nation with a particular past, and we all
have to cope with that past.
RH: What's next for you?
BS: My two mystery novels were always meant to be parts
one and two of a trilogy, so I will write one last mystery that deals
with Germany's post-war history. The first one was about how the
past of the Third Reich still reaches into our present time; the second
one was about '68 and the terrorism of the '70s. And the third will
be about what came after reunification.