Monday, July 14, 2008

Human resilience and the power of stories to bear witness (Books - The book Thief by Mark Zusak)

I am happy to revise most of my opinion of The Book Thief after finishing it. There has to be something good about a 500 page book I read in two days! The narrator is death and the chief character is Liesel, an orphaned girl who ends up with foster parents in the little town of Molching, not far from the concentration camp of Dachau. The subject of the book is human resilience and the role that love and stories play in it.

Liesel's foster mother is beautifully sketched by Mark Zusak:

She was good at being furious. In fact, you could say that Rosa Hubermann had a face decorated with constant fury. That was how the creases were made in the cardboard texture of her complexion...She was five foot one inch tall and wore her browny-grey strands of elastic hair in a bun. To supplement the Hubermann income, she did the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching. Her cooking was atrocious. She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she ever met. But she did love Liesel Meminger. Her way of showing it just happened to be strange. It involved bashing her with wooden spoons and words, at various intervals.

Both the foster parents are memorable creations, loving creatures who end up taking in a Jewish man and hiding him in their home for several years, risking life and limb for their decency, and giving their adopted daughter two key things - the ability to read and a demonstration of what it means to love others.

There was a good deal of Zusak's writing that I came to appreciate. In a race he says of the shot of starter pistol:

the gun clipped a hole in the night

and when Liesel experiences fear she will be called on in class:

Each time Sister Maria looked at her list, a string of nerves tightened in Liesel's ribs. It started in her stomach but had worked its way up. Soon it would be around her neck, thick as a rope.

And while Hans Hubermann, Liesel's foster father is a loving man, to the point of risking his own life by bringing bread to a starving Jew in the street, his son:

Hans Junior had the eyes of his father, and the height. The silver in his eyes, however, wasn't warm, like Papa's - they'd been Fuhrered. There was more flesh on his bones, too, and he had blond prickly hair and skin like off-white paint.

The book thief of the title is Liesel herself, who begins stealing books from piles of books local citizens burned on Hitler's birthday as a demonstration of their loyalty to party and country. So she may be a thief, but her theft is a rescue mission, both for the books and for her own soul. And with all the loss that this young girl experiences, she finally decides to write her story and those of the people around her. She keeps a record of their experiences as faithfully as Victor Klemperer did in his amazing diaries.

So then why is the narrator death? Well, I won't give that away - read the book and find out. The way Zusak plays with form in this book can be rather gimmicky. I had been frustrated with the voice of the narrator, death, as I began reading the book both because I found myself distanced from the early events of the story and because I found it overly cute. Some of that changed and some of it didn't. There was a certain twee quality to the narrative voice I could never shake. I was never allowed to forget that I was reading a novel in the young-adult genre, but aside from that, I felt the investment made in the concept really paid off. Death says of 1942:

It was a year for the ages. like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, God damn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a holiday.

A Small Piece of Truth
I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only ear a hooded black robe when it's cold.
And I don't have those skull-like
facial features you seem to enjoy
pinning on me from a distance. You
want to know what I truly look like?
I'll help you out. Find yourself
a mirror while I continue.

I actually feel quite self-indulgent at the moment, telling you all about me, me, me. My travels, what I saw in '42. On the other hand, you're a human - you should understand self-obsession.

Or later:

Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.

However, the distance that annoyed me when first reading the book really began working for me as it continued. We have a 500+ page novel about war, about World War II, about the holocaust, about a young girl who loves books, about a Jewish man hiding in the basement. We already know the events it tells us are going to be unspeakably sad and horrible. And we already have a book that sees these horrors through the eyes of a young girl that is one of the biggest best sellers of all time. This book looked beyond those indelible facts and tells a different story - still the truth, but skirting obvious cliches. It adds a second level - looking at the events from the point of view of death. If any narrator has seen it all, he certainly has. These twin perspectives look at the inhabitants of this small town on the road to a concentration camp. Some of the people were loving and generous, others stingy and actively hateful, others self-interested and fairly clueless - all live on a road that is within walking distance of Dachau. All Germans were not actively pursued, all Germans, did not have laws passed against them forbidding them marriage, jobs, bank accounts, and all Germans were not hounded like animals into camps, removing all their humanity and then executed but many more than those murdered in the camps were the Nazi's victims. This book looks at the lives of the people in this village as seen through the fresh (but not naive) eyes of Liesel and the ancient eyes of death. This death is not a god, he's a servant. He's the soul collector - despising some of these people and admiring others, but mostly he is moved by their fortitude. Both the story tellers are obliged to bear the weight of many souls on their backs. The visions of Liesel and death combine to tell a loving tale that ends up being very touching and compulsively readable. Here's my earlier post on this book. And here's Mark Thwaite's excellent interview with Mark Zusak.

I have taken the liberty of replacing one of my chunkster challenge books with this one, given its chunkster status - let's be real, Middlemarch, The Magic Mountain, Life and Fate, The Gulag Archipelago, and Darkmans in one year? It's not going to happen.


Lotus Reads said...

I just HAVE to lay my hands on this book! Perhaps I'll read it on my long flight home at the end of the month. Love the cover too, the US version is not captivating at all.

Ted said...

LR - It surprised me how the book grew on me. It's interesting, isn't it, how the covers change in different English-speaking markets. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in some of those marketing meetings. Oh THAT will never sell in the U.S....

Anonymous said...

Ooh, The Magic Mountain next: gotta be!

Actually, I'm only saying that because I really, really want to "do" Thomas Mann this year but I know (because of a secret, if a little silly, reading plan list of my own) I just aint going to get to him until mid next year at the earliest ...

Ted said...

Mark - I so want to read the James Woods translation too - my last time it was an old yellowed paperback. The pages were separating from the spine as I read them.