The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak and first published in 2005, is one of those titles that has long drifted on the edge of my reading consciousness, its scope and ambition well known, its resulting reputation hence almost too intimidating for me to tackle.
Narrated by Death himself, a figure given to great compassion, toil and incisive observation, with nary a scythe or black cape to be seen, and set against one of the most tumultuous and deadly periods in modern human history, World War Two, it is a book that, in one sense at least, cannot be taken lightly.
Its very subject matter is that of genocide, death, fanaticism, propaganda and the demonising of an entire race, who at the stroke of an ideologically-poisoned pen ceased to be regarded by the German political leadership and many of its people, voluntarily or involuntarily, as people, and more as pests to be exterminated by any and all means possible.
“So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.” (Death remembers, p.331)
You cannot approach the Holocaust lightly with the weight of this kind of inhuman thought and behaviour bearing down upon it, and so I skated around it for quite a number of years, fearful of the toil it might take.
Finally deciding the book must be read, if only to allow me to better understand its newly released cinematic companion, I plunged into its pages, and found to my unexpected pleasure, a book deeply rooted in the everyday human experience, its story told with lyricism and a poetic sense of what happens to average people when history present a darker, deeply troubling face.
Yes it is tackled the type of subject matter I feared it had to, how could it not if it was going to be a faithful and true accounting of the period, but it did so from the point of view of the inhabitants of a poor neighbourhood in the Munch satellite city of Molching (a fictitious town as best as I can tell) who to varying degrees were either witnesses or active participants, good or bad, in Nazi Germany’s precipitous rise and fall.
It is into the deprived but close neighbourhood of Himmel Street (which translates as heaven), riven by the sorts of alliances and rivalries that characterise many small tightly-knit communities, that Liesel Meminger is deposited when her mother is unable to care for her.
Handed across to Hans and Rose Hubermann, a married couple who almost function as a good cop/bad cop combination – Hans the warm, sensitive Papa who soothes Liesel after her many vivid nightmares and who teaches her to read, and Rosa, a cantankerous woman with a strong sense of right and wrong, burdened down by life and included to liberal use of great profanities, many of which become almost terms of endearment to the wide-eyed new arrival whom she loves deep down.
“Outside, through the circle she had made, Liesel could see the tall man’s fingers, still holding the cigarette. Ash stumbled from its edge and lunged and lifted several times before it hit the ground. Fifteen minutes passed till they were able to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it. Quietly.” (Rose’s arrival, p28)
Forced to make a life in a city far from home and everything she knows, Liesel is the The Book Thief of the title, her story narrated by Death who follows her from this initially traumatic period in her life, and that of the nation of the Germany itself, through the many good and bad moments of her life to her death in far off Sydney, Australia many years later.
Liesel’s story can’t help but be intertwined with the epoch-searing events of the period, including the persecution and active extermination of the Jews of the people, including at nearby Dachau, most personally when the Hubermann household shelter the grown son of one of Hans’ military comrades of World War One, a Jewish man who effectively gave his life in place of Hans in battle one day.
Max Vandenburg, is given sanctuary as much because of Hans’ unwillingness to comply with a regime he views with great distrust as his honouring of a vow he made to Max’s father to repay a debt he owed him in any way the elder Vandenburg saw fit, and his story and that of Liesel are told against the backdrop of the every day goings on in Himmel Street and its place in the wider tableau of World War Two Germany.
Given the gravity of the world described in the book, you might think that having Death act as the narrator would be too much of a gimmick, a novelty designed to deflect the tremendous upheaval, pain and horror of the period.
Certainly the thought crossed my mind as Death began re-telling the events of Liesel’s life, her new life with the Hubermans, her staunch friendship and yes nascent teenage romance with romance, and her great love of the written word which began prior to her acquisition of literacy and grew in leaps and bounds after it.
Books are used as a motif in The Book Thief, a way of denoting growth, intimacy, friendship and camaraderie, a reminder that beyond this time, this street and this city lie infinite possibilities and ways of thinking and living, an especially important thing of which to be mindful when all official thought is narrow, intolerant and deadly those whom it does not include within its suffocatingly small and rigid boundaries.
And their presence mirrors the exquisitely nuanced, and beautifully rendered words of Zusak, who manages to infuse the events of the book with as much humour as pain, who takes ordinary, everyday events and gives them a vivacity and life, always striving to remind us that life is never easy or uncomplicated but it is also joyful and hopeful, no matter what the trials at hand.
“Himmel Street was a procession of tangled people, all wrestling with their most precious possessions. In some cases it was a baby. In others, a stack of photo albums or a wooden box. Liesel carried her books between her arm and her ribs.” (Walking to the air raid shelter, p. 399)
The great achievement of The Book Thief is that it unflinchingly addresses life in Nazi Germany in a way that is brutally honest without being wilfully sensationalist or overwrought.
It is simply presented as it is, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about what is right and what is wrong and what motivates the people who live throughout this time.
Zusak, writing with great restraint and remembering that it is the people, whatever their ilk that defines a moment in history, never overplays his hand, making his points with skilful ease and yes in many places, consummately lyrical, heart-rending beauty.
The Book Thief is a remarkable book, grappling with weighty, soul-searing events yes but a powerful, gorgeously written reminder, as you blink through the tears that will inevitably fall at book’s end, that true humanity and its many out workings such as literature, honour, family and love to name a few, are a wondrous thing to behold, even in the darkest days, and yes even when recounted by Death himself.
This is one book that was well worth the wait.