No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, March 28, 2008

#22: The Book Thief -- Marcus Zusak

They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalogue of colours. That wasn't how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that's exactly what they were, for many of them would die. They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke, and their souls trailing behind.

I started reading The Book Thief just as my March slump (evident in previous years) hit: I lost interest in reading anything, and it took me a while to finish the novel. Though it has some gorgeous prose, this is not a cheerful book. Unsurprising, given that it's set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death: there are moments of peace, love, beauty in this novel, but they're like slanted sunshine through black clouds. Liesel Meminger is the eponymous book thief: almost certainly an orphan, she watched her brother die en route to the small town where they're to be fostered. (This is her first encounter with Death, and her first book theft: a handbook for gravediggers). Arriving at the house on Himmel Street (in a small town just outside Munich: I'm not sure it's ever named), Liesel finds herself in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. Rosa verbally abuses Liesel, though it's just her way of showing she cares: Hans teaches her to roll cigarettes for him, and to read.

Liesel plays football, steals food and has adventures with the boy next door, Rudy Steiner. (Rudy is the character I liked most: possibly because we see him through the filter of Liesel's affection, and possibly because he doesn't have time to go bad.) She can't share the biggest adventure with him, though: the arrival of Max, a young Jewish man whose father saved Hans Hubermann's life in World War I. Max has an accordion; Max lives in the basement; Max, in one of the episodes that makes this book more than just another novel of Nazi oppression, paints over the pages of Mein Kampf to write and illustrate a story for Liesel.

Life goes on. This is life in wartime: bad things happen, though not exclusively bad things. There are bombs, deaths, books that Liesel is given, air raid shelters, Liesel reading to the neighbours, Liesel writing her own story -- which is the book that Death carries everywhere with him.

There's a great deal of glorious poignant prose in this novel: nearly all of it is in Death's framing narrative:
I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men.
They are not.
They're running at me.

(The typography of Death's narrative is also innovative and arresting.)

I'm torn by Death. I'm not sure his narrative is necessary to the story. We learn that God is absent or doesn't listen: that souls have colours: that Death is haunted by humans. That Death loves the souls he takes, Jews and Nazis alike. That he comes as comfort to those in extremity. That he is moved by Liesel's account of her life. But the story would stand without him, though the book would be a lesser thing without the vivid novelty of Death's metaphors.

1 comment:

  1. I did enjoy this book - but not as much as I was hoping to. I also found Death's narrative voice rather mannered, bordering on irritating.

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