This essay urges a reconsideration of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and the familiar, if far from transparent, moral terminology of his admirers and detractors alike. It focuses on conceptions of forgiveness in particular, considering these through the lens of Jacques Derrida's essay “On Forgiveness”/“Le Siècle et le Pardon.” Derrida concedes his is a “mad” conception of forgiveness: “what there is to forgive must be, and must remain, unforgivable — such is the logical aporia.” He argues that losing sight of the impossible absolute (forgiveness that forgives the unforgivable) opens the rhetoric of “ordinary” forgiveness to personal and political abuse, to hypocrisy and calculation. Forgiveness might suture a wound, enabling healing and reconciliation, but its closure also ushers in, if not forgetting, an attenuation or weakening of the suffering of victims of unforgiveable crime and the silencing or appropriation of their voices.
Contra critics who argue that Schlink offers an exculpatory, because explanatory, portrayal of his Nazi protagonist and second-generation German narrator, I argue that The Reader exposes the potential for abuse that characterizes the rhetoric of “ordinary” forgiveness. Schlink does not excuse his Nazi perpetrator or invite forgiveness of her, but rather portrays a narrator invested — personally and politically — in the process of exculpation. Reading The Reader alongside Derrida's essay enables reexamination of critical responses to the novel, invites consideration of the invested nature of forgiveness and the “work of mourning” that is reconciliation, and points us towards a better understanding of Derrida's conception of “pure” forgiveness, possible (only) as impossible.