Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Source of book: Recommended by and borrowed from my friends Peter and Patty Wonderly

I don’t read a lot of modern fiction. Perhaps I’m a bit of a reactionary, and perhaps I just prefer that time cull the chaff from the wheat. I have, however, followed the recommendations of a select group of people whose judgment I trust.

I was not disappointed in this book, which is well written, thoughtful, and compelling.

The Book Thief is written by an Australian author about my age. (Does that make him young? I’m not sure anymore.) I was a bit surprised to discover this after I finished the book, as his writing seems rather relaxed and unforced for his age. Many younger authors (and great authors in their youth) try so hard to be profound that they let the profundity get in the way of the story. Not so here.

Liesel Meminger, the protagonist, is a young German girl (and later a teen) who is, for all intents and purposes, orphaned. Her father is a communist, arrested by the Nazis, is never heard from again. Her mother gives her up to the foster care system and likewise disappears. Her younger brother dies on the train to meet their foster parents, the Hubermanns.

Just as Liesel is settling into life with her foster parents, they choose to harbor a Jew, Max, whose father saved Hans Hubermann’s life in World War One.

That is all I will disclose of the plot, because the twists are part of the fun. Or torture, perhaps.

Okay, one more disclosure is necessary. Liesel cannot read at age ten, a fact which distresses her. At her brother’s funeral, she steals a book that is left behind. Hans teaches her to read, and Max…well, that would spoil some of the story.

One interesting facet of the book is the creative (if not exactly original) use of the narrator. Zusak chooses Death to be the narrator, which leads to an interesting combination of perspectives. The conceit is that Death himself pinches the book Liesel writes, reads it, and re-tells the story. Thus, there are essentially two narrators. Liesel tells the story, which is then interpreted by Death, who also fills in additional details that he learns from his line of work. Thus, conveniently, we learn plenty about how various characters die.

As would be expected, Death would have a very short story to tell if there were not an abundance of souls to collect. Sadly, this book does not need to exaggerate by a bare millimeter the devastating impact of World War Two. If anything, this book is positively idyllic compared to some of the true stories. (The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom comes to mind – my mom read this to us as children, and it instilled a hatred for the Nazis and their philosophy that no history book could ever inspire.)

Despite all this death, and the horribly devastating conclusion, this book is full of hope and goodness. It is a reminder that even in the dark pit of evil that Germany housed, there were still those who risked their lives, suffered grave consequences for doing the right thing, but nevertheless did what they knew was right.

There are a host of sympathetic characters, each admirable and flawed. Liesel, the emotionally damaged girl. Rudy, who loves Liesel as much as he hates the Hitler ethic. The mayor’s wife, who recognizes a kindred soul in Liesel, as she too has never recovered from her grief. Rosa Hubermann, who is capable of great love despite her obnoxious exterior. Hans and Max, who should really be discovered through the story itself.

One thing I did find just slightly off in this book was Liesel herself. She is highly believable as a person, but just ever so slightly less so as a female. Zusak doesn’t do badly here, but one cannot help but wonder if a woman would have written Liesel a bit differently. I can’t really put my finger on it.

The scene that cemented this for me was early in the book, where Rudy and Liesel are playing soccer with a group, and Rudy clobbers her in the ear with a snowball. Death’s aside here is, “A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship.” From the male perspective, yes. A thousand times yes! To a girl? Perhaps to the right sort of girl.

I also felt that the asides by Death were risky. I think Zusak walked the line well, but the asides could have become a distraction. As it is, they serve as a break from the increasing darkness of the narrative – much as comic relief is used in other works.

I particularly enjoyed Death’s complaint about war.

            They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: “Get it done, get it done.” So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.

And this gets to the heart of why this is a book that contains light, but is ultimately quite dark. The historical facts don’t change. Hitler slaughtered six million Jews. An estimated sixty million people worldwide died as a result of the war. (For an even more depressing thought, this was 2.5% of the world population. WWII killed the most people by total numbers, but not as a percentage of population.) And then Stalin and Mao…the history of the 20th Century is simply ghastly.

As Death confesses at the end, “I am haunted by humans.”

Despite the darkness, the ultimate point of the war and of the book is that evil can and should be defeated, whether on the grand scale of the war, or the small scale of individual lives. The small sacrifices and the small acts of kindness are important too, and ultimately, each of us is responsible to take a stand in our own way against the darkness.
Note #1: Dachau

The setting of this book is in a (fictional) suburb of Munich, along the road to the Dachau Concentration Camp. Dachau was the original Concentration Camp, the model that the others were built on. Originally, (particularly before the war) it housed political prisoners. Later, it was used, like the rest, for Jewish prisoners.

Unlike many of the other camps, Dachau probably did not utilize a gas chamber. Prisoners were exterminated the old fashioned way: by being starved or frozen to death. The iron gates of the camp still read, “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work sets you free”. 

 During my law school days, in October of 1999, I spent a couple of weeks in Europe, including three days in the Munich area. Our trip to Dachau came on an appropriately rainy day. I had a cold I picked up somewhere, so I was doubly miserable.

Dachau was an unforgettable and haunting experience. Only one of the barracks is still standing – the rest are represented by the old concrete foundations. Rows of gray squares surrounded by barbed wire. 

The hardest part, though, was the crematoriums, which are still standing. Although everything has been cleaned throughout the last 60 years, the ash of human bodies still remains in the cracks, and the acrid air is still tainted. 

Note #2: Death as the Narrator

The use of death as the narrator of this story is an unusual touch. The author originally conceived the role of death as a harsh and cynical character – very modern in outlook, perhaps. However, it didn’t work, so Death was rewritten as a more likeable and comforting personality. In this, the author looks backward, not forward.

The motif of “Death and the Maiden” dates to medieval times, an offshoot of sorts from the Danse Macabre, but with femininity, and therefore added pathos.

Der Tod und das Mädchen, Hans Baldung Grien, 1517

Franz Schubert wrote a magnificent string quartet on this theme, entitled, of course, “Death and the Maiden”. The second movement of the quartet is the melody from his song of the same name, which uses the words of a poem by Matthias Claudius:

The Maiden:
    Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
    For life is sweet, is pleasant.
    Go! leave me now alone!
    Go! leave me now alone!

    Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
    For I'm a friend, hath ne'er distress'd thee.
    Take courage now, and very soon
    Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!"

The tune itself was probably inspired in part by the similar funeral march from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, composed six years prior.

Note #3: Hans and Art

A longtime friend of mine, Hans, is a violin maker. We have known each other both professionally and personally since I was a child, and we attended the same church for several years. He officiated at my wedding.

Hans grew up in southern Germany. As a child, his neighborhood was bombed much as described in this book.

Years later, he met his American wife Nancy at a training for violin makers, they married, and took over Nancy’s father’s violin shop in Los Angeles.

The story took an interesting turn when he met a man named Art at our church who was an airman in the bomber division for the United States Air Force in the war. (I seem to recall he was a gunner – but don’t quote me on that.)

After comparing notes, they determined that Art had in fact bombed Hans’ town during the war. They became friends – a testament to the power of reconciliation. 


  1. I really need to give this book another go. When it first came out everyone was raving about it so, of course, I put off reading it. Finally I did pick up a copy but the voice of death bothered me at that time and so I set it aside. Still I hear people raving about it. I think perhaps I was too hasty. I also think it might have been the church we were going to at the time which influenced me in certain ways that I'm not real happy with at this present moment. Honestly, I think I closed the book covers too soon.

    Re: Dachau and the crematoriums. I have to confess that our recent "adventures" in our home had me thinking a great deal about concentration camps. I had *no idea* that flesh and bone could smell as perfectly hideous as it does. And we only burned chicken bone! But every time I walked into the house and smelled it, I wondered what the camps must have smelled like. Their inability to escape from the smell bothers me. The fact that the smell still lingers there does not surprise me. But I am impressed that the stench produced by the crematoriums would cause depression and would leave a lingering odor of death on everyone. And it further boggles my mind how anyone could deny that people were being killed and cremated. The smell alone should force the brain to use simple logic. One chicken caused an entire house to be redone (and the smell STILL exists) and so the bodies of millions of Jews? Knowing what bones smell like, now I am simply overwhelmed at the thought of concentration camps. (Let's just say it hit closer to home and I was given a sensory gift to imagine the life that was lived in the camps.)

    1. I too tend to avoid books that are all the rage. However, there have been a few that are worth reading. Generally, I follow recommendations from friends that I know have good taste and from a few writers that I also trust. (Two books that come to mind are The Cypresses Believe in God and The Elegance of the Hedgehog - both excellent.)

      If you find yourself in Europe (sorry - couldn't resist), visit a concentration camp. You will never forget it.