Honestly, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is not the kind of book I usually read. I tend to shy away from books with extremely dark subject-matters, like war and death. This was why, when I first came upon the book in the bookstore, I took one glance at the cover and quickly dismissed it as not being my cup of tea. Later, however, at coming across the book again, I decided to flip through and read the first few pages. And immediately, I was engrossed.
When I first figured out that the story was told by Death himself, I was a little put off. This narrative device seemed distasteful, or even wholly inappropriate, considering the subject-matter. But the author makes Death a compassionate narrator, who can comment uniquely on the inhumanities of humans while struggling to understand their resilience and innate goodness. As Zusak himself stated, “Here, Death is exhausted from his eternal existence and job. He is afraid of humans – because, after all, he was there to see the obliteration we’ve perpetrated on each other throughout the ages – and he is now telling this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it.” On many occasions, Death campaigns to win the readers’ approval, trying to show that despite the job he has to do, he is not all that dark and evil. “You see?” he says at the demise of one of the best-liked characters of the book. “Even death has a heart.”
Another thing that I found really interesting about this book is the fact that it offers a whole other perspective about Nazi Germany during World War II. When I think of Germans during that dark period of history, I find myself assuming that all the Germans fully supported Hitler in his horrendous campaign against the Jews. However, this book changes that perspective, as it tells the tale of Germans who were not convinced by Hitler’s reasons for propaganda, and who hid and protected their Jewish friends at great risk of their own lives.
It narrates the story of ordinary people living ordinary lives, and then taking extreme measures to rebel in their own ways against Hitler and his campaign.
The story follows a young girl, who has been abandoned by her mother, and who comes to a town near Munich called Holching to live with her foster parents. As the story progresses, we meet all shades of Germans, from truly committed Nazis, to people who are not as persuaded by Hitler’s propaganda. The characters are rich, interesting and full of life, and the writer tries his best to make sure that no Nazi touchstone is treated in a predictable way. For example, Hitler’s first book “Mein Kampf” first helps to save a young Jewish man, who is hidden by the protagonist’s foster parents. Then, eventually, the book’s pages are painted white and transformed into entirely another book, which represents the unique bond between the Jew and the girl.
Liesel (the eponymous book thief), and her best friend Rudy, though being Lutheran, and therefore not in any danger of sharing the fate of the Jews in the country, nonetheless commit small, meaningful acts of defiance against the Nazi regime throughout the book, the most significant of them being the books she steals from various places, from the mayor’s library, to a Nazi book burning ceremony. The relationships of Liesel with all the other characters are the central focus of the book, one of them being her friendship with the Jew hidden in her basement, Max Vandenburg. All the relationships are different and interesting, be it her relationship with her accordian-playing foster father who teaches her to read, or her strange bond with the mayor’s wife, who allows Liesel to read in her huge library filled with books.
One aspect of the book that I found to be really unique was the way it relies on striking, simple visuals like color to create imagery. The narrator of the book describes the death of human characters with certain colors of the sky. “The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness. Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that look like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast. Then, bombs.” While the book is set amidst a war-torn place, and is not immune to bloodshed, most of the story is figurative: it unfolds as symbolic or metaphorical abstraction.
At its most effective, the book’s tone is terrifyingly matter of fact. “For the book thief, everything was going nicely,” Death observes, as the extermination camps flourish in the summer of 1942. “For me, the sky was the color of Jews.” Liesel is portrayed as a fine heroine, a memorably strong and dauntless girl, and the simple occurrences of her everyday life in Nazi Germany are a quiet witness to the horrors of that period. The language the author employs is simple, and yet its impact on me, while reading – and even afterwards – was powerful. The words often released a strong rush of emotions in me, anger at the injustices surrounding Liesel and the people around her, awe at the strength and resilience shown by Max Vandenburg and Liesel’s father, and utter sadness when the war directly begins to impact their lives.
The only thing where I felt the book slackens is that while there are overwhelming moments of great horror and truth which impact the reader sharply, I was left wishing that there were more of such moments of tear-jerking sentiment. Despite this, however, Zusak is able, with the help of his relatable characters, to give remarkable insight into the human psyche.
The author has said that the writing of this book was inspired by two events related to him by his mother. One was the bombing of Munich. The other was an incident where a teenage boy offered a stale piece of bread to an emaciated Jew trailing at the back of a group of Jews being marched to a concentration camp. The Jew fell to his knees and kissed the boy’s ankles, thanking him. A solider, however, upon seeing this snatched the bread from the Jew and whipped him for taking it. He then went on to whip the boy for offering it in the first place. As Zusak says, “In one moment, there was great kindness and great cruelty, and I saw it as the perfect story of how humans are.”
A number one New York Times bestseller, The Book Thief has been marketed as a young adult book in some countries, and as an adult novel in others. In my opinion, it can, and certainly should be read by both. It is an unsettling, thought-provoking story which is both triumphant and tragic, and is masterfully told. It is a story about words, how Hitler destroys people with words, and how this young girl steals the words back, reading in her basement with her Jew friend, and calming people down in bomb shelters with the words in her books. In the end, it is a story in which books become treasures, and there is no arguing with a sentiment like that.
Australian author Markus Zusak grew up hearing stories about Nazi Germany, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother’s small, German town. He always knew it was a story he wanted to tell. At the age of 30, Zusak has already asserted himself as one of today’s most innovative and poetic novelists. With the publication of The Book Thief, he is now being dubbed a ‘literary phenomenon’ by Australian and U.S. critics. Zusak is the award-winning author of four previous books for young adults: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger, recipient of a 2006 Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature. He lives in Sydney.
“A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. I am haunted by humans.”