The Book Thief
The holocaust and the plight of the Jews is nearing cliché status because of its ubiquitous use. The atrocities of WWII are no less diminished by being written about, filmed, and stage produced, ad nauseam. In fact, we may be inadvertently rekindling the flames of racism and bigotry through publicity, almost like promotion.
Though I may sound as if I am tired of reading about it, that is not quite true. Yes, the stories are a never ending source of amazement and surprise; the crimes committed are beyond believability; the depravities absolutely incomprehensible. But the cruelty of man for man is a never ending saga of incredibility: Stalin’s massacring of more than 20 million Russians, Japanese war atrocities against the Chinese, Cambodia’s Pol Pot’s incredible slaughter, the murder of Tutus and Hutus in Rwanda, the mass murders in Kosovo. Will they ever stop? No, these kind of atrocities will happen again and again and again because “they or he walks among us,” psychotic misfits who can never be spotted before they commit their mayhem, or the devil incarnate, if you believe in such an evil force.
The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany in a small village near Munich. Death has never been busier as he harvests his souls everywhere. Liesel picks up a book at her brother’s burial, The Gravediggers’ Handbook, and it becomes the overture to her becoming a book thief, stealing books at Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library and other places. When Liesel’s family hide a Jew for number of years in the basement of the family home, her world opens up and closes down.
It is an unusual story, brilliantly written. The literary brilliance is demonstrated in countless, unexpected ways.
Zusak eschews the use of paragraphs, the writing style which is the norm. His ‘paragraphs’ may be an unsentenced phrase, a ‘bold lettered’ quote, a terse collection of lines, a spray of words. Its total and ongoing inventiveness and creativity sparkle like the gems on a Faberge tiara or a Swarovski piece.
His vocabulary amazes and mesmerizes, the words unexpected, the phrasing oblique. His phrasing at direct right angles to what a reader expects or anticipates.
It may be somewhat re-assuring to read regular people using of native languaged words and “terms of endearment,” not original, but German words for feces, for anus, repeatedly used by the book’s characters when addressing others is almost comforting in its repetition.
Zusak jars the reader by inserting bolded text, describing events, portraying characters, at first glance seemingly out of place but as you read on, serving as conclusion to what preceded or introduction to what follows. Totally jolting.
Death is personified as a narrator and a character in the plot. He writes about himself and his gruesome task of collecting souls of the dead as if inviting the reader’s empathy, understanding or pity; he is only doing his job, as were the Nazi soldiers, the SS commanders, the Gestapo commandants. Pity and empathy are never attained; we all fear death in personal ways, but no reader will empathize with the carrier of the black scythe who chops the leg’s of life from every one of us.
A taste of Zusak…
“There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:
He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else.
He would make himself a small, strange mustache.
He would one day rule the world.