A review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

He is recounting a history which is both still vital and yet already finished. In that sense he is directly aligned with the reader and as this extraordinary novel progresses, the reader has the sense that perhaps, in some way, Death the narrator is the also the reader, a point confirmed later in the book when he tells the reader: “You want to know what I truly look like? . . . Find yourself a mirror.” It creates a shivery feeling, which is compounded by the simple and powerful story.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Book Thief
By Markus Zusak
Picador, $32.95
ISBN: 033036426X, September 2005, paperback, 492pgs

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has one of the most original and striking narrators since Julian Barnes introduced us to the canny perspective of a woodlice in History of the World in 10½ Chapters. There’s no caginess about it. The first word of the first chapter’s title makes it clear that the narrator is a personified Death: the not so grim reaper. Having Death as the narrator for a book set in Germany at the start of World War II starts the book on exactly the right blackly humorous tone which continues throughout. It’s a very Jewish type of humour. I’m thinking of the classic Borsch belt comedians like Sholem Aleichem, Milton Berle or perhaps even later comedians like Billy Crystal or Woody Allen. As Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse quoted in her Radio National piece on Jewish Humour, Saul Bellow calls “characteristically Jewish” a story in which laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations between the two, or as Death puts it: “A final dirty joke. Another human punchline.” (12) This is part of the power of what Zusak does in The Book Thief.

In the story, death plays many roles. Of course he is the classic reaper pictured on the book’s cover. He carries off the souls of the departed, and the departed are unusually abundant during this period of history. On the one hand, he is reluctant participant in the events which unfold before the reader—an active party to the destruction and pain of the Holocaust. On the other hand, Death is an omniscient and more or less fair and impartial spectator. He doesn’t cause the pain or the destruction that drives the book. He just cleans up the mess. Someone else is making the events happen. Is it Hitler? The protagonist? The author? The reader? These semantic questions all add depth to a novel already pithy through Zusak’s superb control of characterisation, setting and a gorgeous command of the metaphor. Death is also the book’s narrator, and his reasons for the narration are part of what drives the narrative forward. He has a longing, and artistic eye which sees human life in terms of colour. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Death is, as is often classically depicted, aligned with time. He is out of the picture in one sense, since he makes it clear that time frame of this story is already long past. He is recounting a history which is both still vital and yet already finished. In that sense he is directly aligned with the reader and as this extraordinary novel progresses, the reader has the sense that perhaps, in some way, Death the narrator is the also the reader, a point confirmed later in the book when he tells the reader: “You want to know what I truly look like? . . . Find yourself a mirror.” It creates a shivery feeling, which is compounded by the simple and powerful story of the protagonist, young Liesel Meminger, the book thief.

Although The Book Thief succeeds on the most post-modern of levels, its impact on the reader is as much due to superb old fashioned plot and characterisation as anything else. It is, afterall, simply a beautiful and painful story of a young girl as she deals with an important and tragic point in history. Liesel is nine and her younger brother six, when her mother takes her and her brother to Munich to be given to foster parents. En route her brother dies: “When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown colour, and peeling, like old paint.” (20) Liesel is then thrust into a nightmare/dream existance which involves the thieving of a book, the development of a relationship with her foster parents, Rosa and Hans Huberman, and her growing sense of self as she ages during this period. Liesel’s coming of age is a key part of the plot, and it is possible to read the book as simply the story of Liesel. Certainly Liesel’s characterisation is enough to carry the story. When Liesel arrives at the Hubermans she is scared, almost mute, and refuses to get out of the car or into a bath, but we have already begun to love her through the lens of Death’s sympathy:

For Liesel Meminger, there was the imprisoned stiffness of movement, and the staggered onslaught of thoughts. Es stimmt nicht. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
And the shaking.
Why do they always shake them?
Yes, I know, I know, I assume it has something to do with instinct. To stem the flow of truth. Her heart at that point was slippery and hot, and loud, so loud so loud. (21)

Her one important possession is her first theft The Gravedigger’s Handbook stolen in the desolate moments after her brother’s burial. Although she doesn’t yet know how to read, the book holds specific meaning for her, which Death spells out in one of his introductory headings. It was the start of her intense relationship with words, the power of which Liesel instinctively understands and ultimately penetrates as writer. The love/hate relationship with the power of words is one which the reader comes to share. Liesel walks through the timebomb of her youth (something our omniscient narrator doesn’t hesitate to remind us of), finding love and meaning in unusual places, including her hungry lovestruck friend Rudy, Max, a Jewish refugee who hides in her basement, her wonderful Papa Hans, and even in her foster mother Rosa. All of these people reach her through words, acts of courage and sacrifice, and Leisel matures as she comes to understand all the nuances of their gifts, although often too late.

Rosa is one of the most humorous characters of the book. She has the demeanor of Mrs Joe Gargery, Pip’s ferocious sister in Dickens’ Great Expectations, and her foster father Hans is not unlike Joe. Liesel first begins to feel like part of the family through Rosa’s foul mouth, including the liberal use of the Swabish sounding words, “Saumench” and Saukerl, which mean something like a pig person or filthy pig. Rosa uses the words in a negative way when angry, but also as terms of endearment, something not inconsistent with her personality. By the end of the book, Rosa’s great snores and curses become almost the subject for nostalgia (at the very least they seem minor offenses amidst other great evils), and one feels the kind of grudging concern for this woman you might have as your mother, but not neighbour. Both Hans and Rosa provide Liesel with the one thing she needs–presence. Or as Death puts it: “Not leaving. An act of trust and love, often deciphered by children.” This is one of the great truths that Liesel comes to understand, and the key gift provided to her by Hans and Rosa. But Hans does more than not leave. He sits at Liesel’s bed each night, teaches her to read, and gives her the music of his accordian. Zusak’s descriptions of this father-daughter relationship are pure poetry:

Hans Hubermann would sit sleepy-eyed on the bed as Liesel cried into his sleeves and breathed him in. Every morning, just after two o’clock, she fell asleep again to the smell of him: a mixture of dead cigarettes, decades of paint, and human skin. When morning came in earnest, he was a few feet away from her, crumpled, almost halved, in the chair. (38)

Another key character is Max, who, although Death doesn’t spell this out, seems to pervade the part of the book left unwritten. He is the man between Himmel Street and Sydney. It’s a big jump, and in the gap is partially filled by his wonderful cartoon book, The Standover Man, which he writes and illustrates, Lunig-like, for Liesel during his stay in the Hubermann’s basement. It’s a link between the world of Himmel Street where Liesel lives with the Hubermann’s, and Liesel’s own lost book The Book Thief.

Death’s own role as a character is a strong one, and he hints at a conflicted inner life. In some ways he makes himself a slave of humans – dealing with the impact of their wars and atrocities: “The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.” He talks about the impact of so much loss on his own frail state:

They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating like black hearts.
And then.
There is death.
Making his way through all of it.
On the surface: unflappable, unwavering.
Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.(331)

An afterlife is hinted at very subtly, but never clarified – bodies go cold and melt and sometimes warm again as their souls are gently removed. That’s all the reader gets. The rest is left open to imagination, as is the direction that Death as character might be moving in. He’s allegorical in one sense, but so real in his sensations, longings and emotions, that it isn’t hard to imagine some kind of progression for him. As character, he may not be nice, but he has his charms, as typified by the last line in the book. Death’s most striking punchline is delivered at the very end. And like the best Jewish humour, it works by turning both fear and convention on its head, in this case, making humans the ‘other’ haunting entity. It also places the final spotlight directly on life, and the celebration and triumph of it, even in the face of man-made hatred and horror. The Book Thief is a wonderful book, full of beauty, pain, longing, joy, and sensuality. It never skirts the horror of war, death, or pain, nor does it flinch at the very real tragedy it immerses itself, sometimes graphically, in. But even at its ugliest, this is a story of the beauty and celebration, however fleeting, of human life.