Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Book Thief

Title: The Book Thief  
Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Fiction; Psychological Thriller; Hard to Classify
Length: 560 pages
ISBN: 9780375842207

“There’s an expression that War and Death are like best friends. So, I thought, who better to tell a story set in Nazi Germany, because Death was everywhere at that time and place. And what’s the opposite of that all-powerful Death? Vulnerable Death. What if Death were afraid of us? What if Death were haunted by humans?”     – Markus Zusak

From the time we’re old enough to realize fully the dangers of life and recognize its brevity and uncertainty, we all fear Death. It’s partly instinct: like all other animals, humans are born with the instinct to avoid demise. And it’s partly reason: our fear of Death grows increasingly strong as we gain wisdom and the ability to understand the odds that are stacked against us. But what if, like Markus Zusak asks, Death were afraid of us, too?

And why wouldn’t Death fear us? Death is, after all, on hand to see all of the terrible things humans do to each other.

Charged with the arduous and impossibly lonely task of taking human souls from the Earth, Death is merely a creature obligated to perform the unenviable task of carrying souls away from this world once violence and sickness have done their irreversible damage.

It makes sense, then, that Death would grow unbearably weary of human suffering, haunted by the twisted evil of which humans are capable. Perhaps that’s why Death, the narrator of Zusak’s award-winning novel
The Book Thief , is so drawn to Liesel Meminger and her foster family - Germans who keep their hearts closed to the blackness of Nazi ideology and treasure the small, bright pockets of love in their uncertain world.

As Zusak himself explains,
The Book Thief is about “trying to find beautiful moments in an ugly time.” As our narrator, Death lends a surprising and effective new perspective to Holocaust literature with his compassionate focus on Liesel’s vulnerable childhood, and the beauty and kindness that can still be found even as hatred spreads like a quick disease.

Somewhere along his interminable journey of soul-taking across the globe, Death’s curiosity is piqued by the small blonde child who steals “The Gravedigger’s Handbook,” a book that’s fallen in the snow beside her little brother’s hastily-dug grave. Thus, the Book Thief is born, and Death begins an intense fascination with Liesel’s life; he is entranced by the little girl who steals books and somehow manages to avoid his grasp while all those around her seem to become his victims, one by one.

Set in Nazi Germany,
The Book Thief delves into the harrowing nightmare of the Holocaust through an imaginatively novel lens. Zusak takes Death out of hiding, rips off his shroud of mystery, and holds him up to the light for us to explore with our imaginations. When we read about war and the Holocaust, Death is central to everything that’s touched upon. Zusak harnesses the ubiquity of this concept to give us a clever twist on the obvious Holocaust story: It’s still about injustice, upended lives, and innocence lost, but Death is no longer the ever-present elephant in the room. Indeed, the elephant finally tells the story from his point of view – and, once again, who better to tell the consequences of the Holocaust than Death himself?

And so the story of Liesel Meminger is narrated by Death, punctuated by his wistful commentaries, comic-like illustrations, age-old wisdom, and clarity-inducing witticisms on life and all its challenges. Death’s narration of this little girl’s experience of love, loss, and tragedy is detailed, touching, and moving in an abundance of ways. You can’t help but wonder at how much comfort Death must take in her one, sweet life as he watches with horror the destruction of so many others.

A cast of dynamic villagers, including Liesel’s foster family, the Hubermanns, her best friend Rudy Steiner, and the mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann all flesh out the child’s life before, during, and after the height of Nazi aggression. Through it all, Liesel continues her book thievery, the habit that began with the snatching of “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” on the day of her brother’s death, even risking Nazi violence to steal books from their notorious book-burnings.

But Max Vandenburg is the heart of Liesel’s childhood tale, and Death watches closely as their unlikely friendship unfolds. A Jewish fist-fighter, Max is taken in by the kind Hans Hubermann and hidden in the basement. The young Liesel is drawn to Max: Descriptions of their time together depict the coming together of two minds, both distorted by enormous fear and fighting to overcome the constant terror of life’s very real nightmares.

To be certain, there is a hair-raising irony that permeates
The Book Thief : everyone is hiding (Max from the Gestapo, Liesel and the Hubermanns from being exposed as Jewish sympathizers) in order to avoid Death, yet Death himself is carefully watching them all the while. Death, of course, has nowhere to hide. The totality of human suffering, violence, torture and hate is so great that he can’t ever hope to escape the torments of carrying innocent souls – millions upon millions of them – from their bodies.

Once you’ve begun hearing Death’s tale, you might start to believe that Death really is more afraid of us than we are of him. And you’ll certainly share his deep fascination with the girl named Liesel who met Death many times but never left with him, even as inhumanity and violence devoured her world.