Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This book hit its mark. Zusak is a very creative writer, in content and style, and did an amazing job in helping us sympathize with the tyrannized German citizens who hated the bloodshed and evil perpetrated by their country. We all know that there were Jewish sympathizers among the German people, but do we really understand the extent to which the Nazi party terrorized its own citizenry? They were smothered into submission. What frightens me is the startling realization that I have often stereotyped most WWII Germans as sadistic Nazis, while this labeling is the very thing which caused great suffering for the Semitic people who were so much more than a skin color, a physiognomy, a religion, or a cultural curiosity. Zusak lifted us for a glimpse across the boundaries of our prejudices, often unconscious, to sympathize with Germany’s own true heroes and tragic victims.

In John Milton’s work Comus a song so entrancing is heard, it was said it could “create a soul under the ribs of death.” For Zusak, the human odyssey is that song. His narrator, Death, has a heart, and he is engrossed with humans and their experiences—“I am haunted by humans.” This adoration for mankind is the crux of the story, and Zusak reiterates in myriad ways throughout the book that life is worth it—or, as he summarizes Death’s perspective in the author interview at the end of the book, “humans are actually worth it”. Life can appear ugly, but viewed from the right angle, it can be revealed to be the most beautiful dream ever dreamed. Death as narrator views the human enigma as “contradictory…so much good, so much evil. Just add water”; and the novel ends with Death’s urge to ask Liesel “how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.” Max’s comment to Liesel after their Christmas celebration echoed this sentiment: “Often I wish this would all be over, Liesel, but then somehow you do something like walk down the basement steps with a snowman in your hands.” This is essentially self-affirmation and saying ‘yes’ to life with its good and bad. It is the author’s profession of faith that the universe, or some greater all-uniting Being, is awake and can see us; and our tales of suffering in this seemingly senseless world can be made lovely. One can hardly disagree that this story seems brighter for all its darkness.

The title of the book is derived from the power of words to do evil or good. Hitler is described as a conductor by Max, a verbal virtuoso whose ‘forest of farmed thoughts’ warp the public mind to hate. Liesel becomes the antitype to the Conductor, the contender against him. She is the Word Shaker who discovers the power of words, and recognizes the Fuhrer’s abuse of them. “There was once a strange, small man…But there was a word shaker too.” Word Shakers can shake words and meanings from the diseased growth of propaganda, and reuse those words to bring healing and peace. Stealing words and repurposing them is exactly what the Book Thief did, figuratively and literally. A book was stolen from the Nazi book-burning and made into a little girl’s happiness and community peace. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is used to smuggle a Jew into hiding, and ultimately becomes the recycled into freedom literature. Words meant for evil were shaken, stolen back, and used for good; and the “souls of words” remained inside Liesel for her use.

The Book Thief is good literature. It transcends the flat genres of fiction/nonfiction. The story is here, and it speaks to us. Only the best literature can speak to us like this, not law (religious or societal), not science, not history. Those are mere records…this is taste, this is touch. It is the transmission of a piece of another’s vision, a rich soul-soaking in another being’s perspective and feelings, which only the most grounded and enriched authors can afford to their readers. And it does not haplessly ricochet off of the ‘real world’ immediately upon leaving the page—it is authentic, it is real. Even God is given a chance to say something, although his presence and mode of communication is only heard perceived with other ears via the voluminous, thick-as-blood silence that stalks the narrator, death.

Okay, now for a shotgun blast of the things I didn’t like. I’ll make this quick:

· The same three epithets in German are only funny to read the first few hundred times.

· Some parts of the narrative felt like Holocaust kitsch. At times it felt like the author was tinkering with weepy sentimentalism and cartoony exaggeration. I take these as reminders that it is youth fiction, and may very accurately depict the regressive mental/emotional state of war time existence (“War clearly blurred the distinction between logic and superstition”). Death at one point admits that he likes Max’s “stupid gallantry”, which might be the author’s feeling towards many of his characters; and I too grew so enamored with the actors that I willingly fell for much of the histrionics, even some parts that were patent romantic sensationalism or morbidity.

· Sometimes his turns of phrases and experimental grammar bombed. For instance: “Living is living.” Fail.

· Liesel’s treatment of the Mayor’s wife, and her pleasure in stealing wasn’t always as cute and tragic as we were supposed to think. She was just being a whiney brat half the time. And not even a crying ghost with a scraped knee made me feel sorry for her in those moments of her sniveling self-pity and selfishness.

· Book thievery and ‘a book to be stolen’ was a dead horse, twice baked, by the end of the first quarter of the book. Too much reveling of the author in his premise.

· Chapter titles were nearly useless along with the subtitled ‘hints’ about what was coming in that chapter. Completely worthless. Real-time/story-time oscillations were often obnoxious.

· Not sure what I think about the interpolated definitions and ‘secrets’ mid-page. Page filler? I suppose it provided meaningful pause at moments, but it became a prop that was mostly ignored.

But the negative minutia was dwarfed to nothingness by the creative, unpredictable ‘music’ of so much of the rest:

· The narrator Death’s constant reassurance that life is more than the body: you are “caked in your own body.”

· Liesel’s heartbreaking dedication to her dead brother.

· Hans’ tender care and “thereness” (Zusak’s word) for Liesel.

· Rosa’s rough manner, but loyal-to-death soul.

· Hans’ stepping out to help a paraded Jew.

· The story of the Standover Man and the raw, childlike genius of its art and principles.

· Han’s accordion.

· The basement snowman, and Max’s title bouts with Hitler.

· The moment Liesel learns from her disheveled and cursing mother that Max woke up.

· Rudy giving the pilot a teddy bear.

· Rosa’s stalwart and often cloaked love.

· Rudy’s audacity and pride in winning the races.

· The festering ‘itch’ of conscience was the best metaphor that I have EVER come across to help explain the creeping moral decadence that eventuated in the Holocaust. “Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”

· Word Shaker story and art

· The moment we find out that Ilsa Hermann adopted Liesel.

The readers, like the author in his interview admits of himself, feel like they have left behind friends. The story wasn’t merely an accurate period piece, it was artistic and enchanting. I can see why this is one of the 30 selections for the World Book Night 2012 (see on which booklovers will be able to distribute 20 specially-printed copies of their favorite book (one title) for free in a public location of their choice. The book was well-paced, well-spaced thematically, and kept things interesting with a few twists in narration style including breaks for graphic art. New readers would be hard pressed to put it down, and it would leave them with a sense of how a good book can offer the unique and surreal experience of, not only seeing the world through another person’s eyes, but recognizing a whole new realm of possibilities within their own continuing story.

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