So this afternoon I had my heart broken. And it was all due to Markus Zusak’s stunning and haunting ‘The Book Thief’. If you’ve ever looked for an author who can capture the experience of ordinary German citizens in WW2, and illustrate the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of life, look no further.
I have to admit, it took a little while for me to settle into this book. Narrated by Death, recounting a little girl who haunted him throughout his career, it sometimes came across as too abrupt and forthright. Even later on, there were times when it seemed like Death’s announcements about which characters wouldn’t survive much longer and how he initially dealt with the major event towards the close of the novel were too flippant to carry much weight. How wrong I was; Death’s vision on life was incredibly moving, and it was the sometimes offhand comments were actually the most disturbing, because it showed the futility of conflict, and in doing so showed the horror of tragedy not by dwelling on it and over-sculpting scenes, but by showing how devastation is part of human nature – the reference to Death’s circular heart epitomises the terrible repetitive nature of history.
Liesel’s love story with words, and with finding her own voice amongst books and patriotic policies, is incredibly powerful. A girl haunted by the spectre of Death has to learn to develop a new life, structuring herself anew in order to cope with life’s obstacles. Her relationship with her Papa, Hans Hubermann, is central to this; it’s perhaps a predictable but nonetheless beautiful bond between the two, showing that family can be chosen, just as Hans chooses to protect the illicit Jew in his basement. Likewise, her bond with hidden Jew Max Vanderburg, fugitive from Nazism, is representative of the dehumanising regime enforced upon people who are shaken by words, hollow words that structured a whole cultural movement leading to the massacres of WW2. Liesel is perfect to show how hypnotic the Nazi regime was; her lack of knowledge allows her to bond with Max, contrasting sharply to the parades of Jews being tortured on their long walk to Dachau. Her fascination with the power of words is eventually able to see past the Fuhrer’s heavyweight manipulation, and her journey shows how a minority of Germans recognised this but, as Hans and Alex Steiner find out, to act out against the regime was to invite pain and suffering to your household.
It’s the words used from the third/fourth parts onwards of this book that are emotionally captivating; Zusak’s descriptions of colours, his epigrams about our cultural awareness of life, death and everything in between are beautiful and poetic without preaching or coming across as overly-indulgent. Death’s final line perhaps doesn’t reflect this, although clearly shows the ethos of the book – this line perhaps is more reflective of the future, showing the potential for us to fall from grace once more despite the wonderful nature of individuals like Hans, Liesel and even the foul-mouthed yet caring Rosa Hubermann.
‘The Book Thief’ offers a unique and captivating perspective on the atrocities of WW2 – how a modern, adult author can capture the mixture of perspectives and ages in a novel is beyond me, and yet there it is for all to see, and it’s something people should see, if only to appreciate the confusion of our past and to think about the direction of our futures.