Friday, January 29, 2016

The Book Thief (2005)

Whenever I read a great book, I get mad because I didn’t write it, and The Book Thief infuriates me.

But it doesn’t last long, once I get over myself. And then I can just read and enjoy, and thank God the written word was invented so the ideas in The Book Thief can be communicated with such shattering poignancy. It’s more than just a great book – it serves a function for humanity, revisiting a dark time, a very dark time, in fresh, invigorating language. It will be read, stirring and arresting the senses of millions, for decades to come.

The narrator of the book is Death himself, having an omniscient point of view but also one that forecasts certain characters’ times of departure. Death is a pretty reliable teller, too; he just has a job to do, like anyone else, and in a way has more humanity than a good number of the heavies in the tale he tells.

Yet it’s all based on reality, and WWII in particular, and when He informs us of  how busy He was at Stalingrad – “All day long as I carried the souls across it, that sheet was splashed with blood, until it was full and bulging to the earth” – we get chills. It made me think more about death both as an abstract, and death as a very real, potentially horrible possibility. And, as all great art does, it required me to consider my own mortality, and particularly in context with the millions of others, who suffered and perished in conditions far worse than my own.

1. They look like this
2. They’re rarely incidental
3. Don’t skip them

Markus Zusak has precedence for his masterwork. His central conceit, along with its drolly ironic delivery of very dark matters, is of course the famous territory of legendary novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Since Vonnegut’s literary peak, countless other writers have attempted to repeat his success by emulating his style; few have succeeded. Zusak gets it right because he borrows Vonnegut’s box of toys while still retaining a style in his own right, one which manages to spin a more conventional narrative alongside the stagecraft. And the story, essentially a girl’s coming of age in a world blasted apart by the evils men are capable of inflicting upon one another, is as memorable as that of Anne Frank, the real-life counterpart to Zusak’s fictional heroine.

Liesel, the girl in question, is the title character, but her thievery is more innocuous than it sounds. So hungry for knowledge is she that she has to choice but to pilfer a book here and there – acts which broker friendships, bolster her sense of self-confidence and offer a respite from the ongoing hell around her. Death’s omniscient narration offers us a thorough understanding of her thoughts and feelings as she interacts with the assorted characters in her dramats personae: Rudy, her friend and ill-fated Hitler youth; her step-parents, long suffering Germans who, along with other residents of their street, suffer under the tyranny of their leader and the everpresent fear of death by constant aerial bombardmemts by the enemy; and Max, a Jew her family takes in who becomes an unlikely confidant throughout her trial.

This is not actually a Holocaust story. Max, is the only main Jewish character, and the concentration camps are only indirectly referenced. It focuses more on Hitler’s oppression of all people, and how violence and brutality, even when taught to empower, winds up making victims of everyone. Liesel’s train ride which starts the story, is depicted as horrifically as those which transported the Jews to their deaths. It causes the death of her brother (spurring her interest in book stealing), and scars her just as the book has scarcely begun. It is slowly revealed that her parents were incarcerated and likely murdered for being communists. Is this how a country treats its own citizens? And a little girl at that?

When we reach the inevitable conclusion, we’re almost numb. From the horror we’ve witnessed, yes. But also because it’s made so sensical, so frighteningly sane, by having it conveyed by its perpetrator. Bad, yes, but it’s not me, Death says. It’s you.

So we ask ourselves, what the hell are we doing? For a book to hold that kind of mirror up to us is a most towering accomplishment.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...