Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"The Book Thief"

                There are books that I can fly through, feverishly reading each page before desperately turning to the next.  There are other books that take me forever to read through because they are just so awful I don’t want to read them, but I can’t stomach leaving a book unfinished most of the time.  There is another kind of book, and that is the kind of book that I read with great care and thought throughout the novel.  I can’t fly through the pages, because I know I’ll miss something important.  These are the books where I often have to catch myself and say to slow down.  These are the books that I don’t often talk about because they are so deep that I’m afraid I will somehow “get it wrong.”  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of these books.

When I see this caption,
all I can think of is Rudy!
The Book Thief (Published 2005) starts in 1939 and spans the years of World War II.  In case you’re worried that it goes through these 6 terrible years in the blink of an eye, don’t; the book is 550 pages long.  I find giving a comprehensive, smooth summary of this novel quite difficult.  I like things linearly fashioned, and this book does not permit this.  Our narrator, Death, often gives us glimpses of scenes to come and, to use a modern term, “spoiler alerts.”  Death takes us through the years of World War II, but he does it by pushing us forward and backwards in time.  For example, Death meets our protagonist, Liesel Meminger, three times in the book.  He tells us of all three of the times that he meets her in the very beginning.  Of course, we are later given it in more detail, but that is how Death works.  He gives us glimpses into the future and into the past.  Death tells us the reason, though, which is because “I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.  There are many things to think of.  There is much story”(p.243).  I feel like when Markus Zusak does this, he forces us to think differently.  If we already know that Rudy is going to die, and we know that less than halfway through the book, then how do we read it differently?  We are forced to, like Death, think of the things that are going on around us that “aggravate, perplex, and interest” us.  We cannot rush through to the end because it has already been given away—instead, we walk around in the middle of the novel, asking questions and hoping for answers.

                In an attempt to give you some sort of comprehensive review, because I now realize my attempt to do such in the previous paragraph was not successful, I will tell you that this story revolves around a little girl named Liesel Meminger.  Death is fascinated by her and he gives us the story of her life during those six years.  To use Death’s own words, once again, “It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:

* A girl

*Some words

*An accordionist

*Some fanatical Germans

*A Jewish fist fighter

*And quite a lot of thievery”(p.5)

In the beginning of the story, Liesel watches her brother die and gets taken to the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents.  Before this, when her brother is buried, Liesel steals a book from the boy who is digging the grave.  It is the first book of many that Liesel will steal throughout this novel.  Hans and Rosa become her de facto parents over this time, and Liesel grows to love them, especially Hans.  Illiterate, Liesel is placed in a kindergarten class.  Hans teaches her to read, and this fascination with words permeates the pages of the book.  A kind soul with a debt to pay to someone who saved his life in World War I, Hans and his wife Rosa soon take in a Jewish man and hide him in their basement.  It is through Hans and Max that Liesel’s fascination with words grows.   We watch as Liesel grows from a girl into almost a woman, and we grow to love her and all of those around her.  All through the narration of Death.

                                A pervasive theme in this novel is words and how they can be used.  One of my new favorite quotes as a reader is, “When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything”(p.30).  Liesel is growing up in a world where words have changed their world.  Hitler did not need to ever fire a gun of his own, he used words to convince people.  When Max writes “The Word Shaker” for Liesel, he is presenting a thinly-veiled satire of the world that Liesel is growing up in.  One line states, “Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words”(p.445).  Liesel growing as a reader and a writer is so important to this story because it is the ability for her to have power, to have anything, in a world when so much freedom is taken away.  At a very young age, Liesel realizes that words have the power to change the world.  I won’t spoil the story completely, but suffice it to say that words also serve a role in literally saving Liesel’s life.  In much the same way that words are important, the idea of thievery is also critical to this story.  Every theft to me is not so much a theft as a taking back.  When she steals books, Liesel is taking back from the restrictions that are placed on her by poverty and Nazism.  She steals a book that is literally smoldering out of a book burning rally, and in that moment she is saving what has been denied.  In the stealing of every book and every piece of bread, she is resisting Hitler and Nazism.

So why have Death narrate this story?  Why not tell it from Liesel’s perspective, since
I'm not one for creepy normally,
but I adore death and Liesel here!
she is who the story is about?  In order to fully understand this, I think we need to look at the end of the story.  Death says, “***A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR***  I am haunted by humans***”(p.550).  Okay, so I just gave away the last line of the novel, but I think Death would be okay with that.  This last line is one of the best endings I have ever read from a story.  All of us, at some level, are afraid of Death.  There is the fear of the unknown, and Death has been this omniscient, dark, shady creature with a scythe in our minds for a long time.  Death is the bringer of our end.  In this book, though, Death is not an active agent.  When I was studying religion as an undergraduate, I remember hearing one theory about why God lets the world suffer.  One of the theories was that God was like a clock maker who makes the clock and starts it running, but who leaves it to run on its own.  In reading this story, I was reminded of Death as being this sort of master clockmaker.  In a way, though, Death has even less agency than that—you get the sense that the end of our lives and his very job is not his idea at all.  Death has no choice, no free will of his own.

So where does all the choice lay in this novel?  Who is calling the shots when it comes down to it?  Humans are, of course.  Using Death as a narrator of a novel set in World War II is ingenious because for me the most salient feature of World War II was death.    Death tells us that in all, he carries away 40 million souls during this time.  We are forced to witness death after death in this novel, and I do not think it ever desensitizes it.  Death is the only person who can be the narrator because Death is the only person who was really present throughout the entire war.  We, the people on this earth, were the ones ordering him about.  With every concentration camp and every battle, we called Death to our homes and let him take away men, women, and children who were loved.  It is a startling thought, that it is not death that haunts us, but we who haunt him.  Can you think of any more apt description of the horrors of World War II?

Speaking of World War II, I would not recommend this book be someone’s first foray into the world of Holocaust and Third Reich literature.  I think that there is just too many subtleties and too many confusions with the overall structure of the story that someone who is not knowledgeable in Nazi Germany would be thoroughly confused.  The reader could somehow piece the story together, but it would be difficult.  Without a knowledge of this time in history, the book would lose a lot of its meaning.  For example, at one point, death is describing the train guards and the boy and man digging the hole for Liesel’s brother.  He says, “An observation.  A pair of train guards.  A pair of grave diggers.  When it came down to it, one of them called the shots.  The other did what he was told.  The question is, what if the other is a lot more than one?”(p.22-23).  This is obviously an illusion to complacency of ordinary citizens during the Holocaust.  It comes early in the book, when there has been very little reference to Nazi Germany.  I imagine this book would be most appropriate for students in a high school class who have completed an in-depth study of the Holocaust. 

The actions of the “ordinary Germans” in this story reminds me of another thing that I learned in my undergraduate studies.  In a History of Germany class, we talked about the culpability of Germans in the Holocaust.  Just how to blame was the average Hans Hubermann and Frau Diller walking down the street?  Moreover, for how long are they to blame?  Should we still blame Germans today, or has this guilt been expunged from the record over time?  We see the actions of all kinds of Germans in this story.  The mayor’s wife, with her swastika-embroidered bath robe and slippers, does nothing that we know of to help anyone other than Liesel.  She gives Liesel books, but did she have a hand in rounding up all the Jews of Molching?  Hans Hubermann gave a Jewish man a piece of bread on the street, and he was the only one in his entire town that stood up to help them.  I found the march of the Dachau prisoners through the town very interesting.  You can easily say that you have no knowledge of what is going on when the horror is somewhere else: when starved, beaten, and belittle Jews come walking through your town, it is a little bit harder to deny. 

In 1997, there was a book published called Hitler’s Willing Executioners:Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.  Written by Daniel Goldhagen, it essentially said that all Germans knew about the Holocaust and all of them were to blame.  The book is a 656 page informational text.  It was a #1 international best seller and was translated into 15 languages.  I mention this book because I think the issue of German culpability has not completely disappeared.  There are different opinions as to just how guilty Germans were during this time.  For the record, I’ve read Hitler’s Willing Executioners and I think it presents the world as good and evil, with very little wiggle room.  In The Book Thief, Markus Zusak gives us many different perspectives of life in Nazi Germany.  It is not black and white.  Good or bad.  Instead, there are varying shades of colors and guilt and blame.  We see this in all the characters, their actions, and their struggles.  This may be the very best part of The Book Thief.

Overall, I can’t get over the feeling that this book is important, even if I think it was slightly too long and I don’t understand it all.  We are entering into a generation where there will be no one alive that lived during Nazi Germany.  We have to remember this story, and we have to remember, just as our beloved narrator Death does, all the colors, all the lives that were lost, and all the work that we who were left behind still need to do.
Image Sources:

1 comment:

  1. This book was very deep. I am looking forward to discussing it tomorrow.