Ah, the poor old blog has been very neglected of late. I know February is a short month but this year was ridiculous. Here’s the only book I read last month, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief…
World War Two, that ‘good war’, has been the subject of thousands of works of fiction. Given the scope and scale of the war and its legacy, it’s hardly surprising. But German-born Australian Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (ostensibly aimed at teens) gives one important stakeholder a voice- that of Death himself.
Death is weary. While he supposes he should thank Hitler for keeping him extra busy, he looks back on the time as one of exhaustion, horror and pain. It isn’t professional to take an interest in individual humans, but Death can’t help but be intrigued by one Liesel Meminger.
At the age of ten, Liesel is fostered to Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Her story begins as she travels with her birth mother and her little brother Werner by train to small (fictional) German town of Molching outside Munich. It’s the late thirties, and Liesel’s father has abandoned the family, and her mother can’t cope. Hints are dropped throughout out that the Memingers have fallen foul of the Nazi regime. As communists, her parents have been ostracised and possibly even killed.
Werner, weakened by the journey and the bitter Bavarian winter, dies on the train. They bury him, and Liesel, who cannot yet read, seizes a forgotten book from the graveyard, and brings it with her.
So begins her career as a book thief.
Under the stewardship of the kindly Hans and the gruff but caring Rosa, Liesel begins to heal. She makes friends with her neighbour Rudi, an irrepressible scamp who loves soccer, mischief and Jesse Owens. One of the fastest boys in the neighbourhood, he soon draws the attention of Nazi officials, who see his speed and blond hair as the perfect example of Aryan boyhood.
Meanwhile, Hans, who doesn’t agree with Nazism and refuses to join the party, rescues a young Jew and keeps him in the basement. A World War I veteran, his life was saved by a Jewish comrade, who was killed in his stead. Now the the time has come to save Erik Vanderburg’s son, Max.
Max and Liesel strike up a friendship and she reads to him, and describes the weather he cannot experience. He uses the pages of a copy of Mein Kampf to write a story for Liesel. But war has come, and Dachau is just down the road. Hans can no longer avoid joining the Party. Books are burnt, Liesel and Rudi’s Hitler Youth training becomes ever more intense. Soon Allied bombs rain down. Can the the residents of Himmel Street survive?
Zusak has managed the difficult feat of writing a book set in the Nazi regime and making the characters sympathetic. The book raises complex moral questions about the nature of good and evil. The people of Molching are decent, hard-working and good citizens, but they are citizens of a regime dedicated to extermination and murder. The inmates of Dachau pass by on their death marches while people do nothing. The Jewish citizens of Molching are thrown to the camps and their homes and businesses destroyed.
It’s through the eyes of Liesel and Rudi that we see how twisted things really are. Liesel loves books and strikes up a friendship with the mournful wife of the mayor, who lets her into her private library. But on Hitler’s birthday, otherwise a festive occasion for the children of Molching, a book burning takes place. Literature that is seen as un-German, or worse, written by a Jewish author, is burnt. Liesel watches in horror and rescues a book from the embers.
Rudi, too, is confused by his admiration of Jesse Owens. He worships Owens because he’s the best, but to want to emulate the black American who humbled Hitler is anathema to the adults of Molching. When the war comes and suffering with it, the children begin to loathe the repressive regime they find themselves in.
Death admits he feels more sympathy for the millions he took from the concentration camps than for the Germans who have supported the regime. But he watches it all, astonished and wearied by man’s inhumanity to man.
If you are looking for a conventional narrative, The Book Thief may not be for you. Our chronicler is a strange character, unsurprisingly. We’ve all heard of the unreliable narrator- perhaps Death may be the most reliable narrator of all. He thinks nothing of dropping a few spoilers now and then (he’s the ultimate spoiler himself) and dispassionately discusses Liesel’s life, without ever really knowing what it would be like to be her.
But the book is humorous, especially with the love-hate relationship between Hans and Rosa, and Liesel and Rudi. It makes the end, when it comes, even more heartbreaking.
Death’s last line “I am haunted by humans” has haunted me ever since. I am terrified by the thought of dying, and have been ever since I realised I was a mortal being. But what if we are the ones who terrify, the creatures that inflict terrible fates on each other? What if Death is a being, and it is frightened of us?
Finally, a word on the film, which I also saw last month. The reviews have been quite harsh, and the filmmakers having been accused of turning Nazi Germany into a snow-covered fairyland. However, this faithful adaptation features wonderful performances. The young actors who play Liesel and Rudi (Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch) are excellent, as is Emily Watson as Rosa. Geoffrey Rush could not be a more perfect Hans, imbuing the role with all the kindness and gentleness that it demands.
There seems to be a higher standard placed on WWII movies than any other genre. Any flash of humour or levity is seen to be disrespectful, which I find quite interesting. It was indeed the grimmest time the world faced, but that is not to say that humans did not muddle through. My grandmother remembered the sense of solidarity during the Blitz in Britain, and indeed in some ways missed the ‘Blitz spirit’ when it was all over. People find a way to cope; children especially.
The contrast between the innocence of Liesel and Rudi and the horror of the society they are living in is possibly the most effective way to illustrate the atrocities that may have become all too familiar to us. Whatever about the film, the book is a must read for all.