“I am haunted by humans.”
The Book Thief fits in snugly in the Young Adults Fiction section of each library, but in reality, it means much more, oh so much more. As we all know, Nazi Germany is one of the most compelling parts of world history and Markus Zusak too, attempts a take on it. And this take is unlike from any so far. It is one that will make you cackle up and weep inconsolably, for good reason.
This book, narrated by Death itself is quite a different read on Nazi Germany. The protagonist is a young, determined and willful girl, Liesel Meminger. She is crafted to perfection, a young heroine that will remain in your minds for a long time after, almost Harry Potter-ish in nature. Death picks up a diary kept by her and narrates this tale later. The book brings out the life of a young, orphan girl in a Nazi affected town of Molching, Germany. Adopted by Rosaand Hans Hubberman, in love with her neighbour Rudy, she lives a life as normal as one can lead in Nazi Germany. She, being Lutheran, is safe from Hitler’s tirade against the Jews but this doesn’t stop her from witnessing the march of chained Jews, starved due to lack of food and hope. She is still forced to join the Hitler Youth Reform and keep low, thanks to many circumstances.
She is not new to loss. Liesel has never met her father, her brother died on train tracks and her mother abandoned her. Through the course of her life, she is to lose a lot more. So how does she settle her score with death? She steals books. And this gives her the appropriate title of “Book thief”. She steals her first book in the cemetery where her brother is buried, “A Twelve-Step Guide to Grave-digging Success”. Throughout the years, she steals a few more. Each book has a deeper meaning in her life and helps her at points to overcome grief that no child should ever face. Even “Mein Kampf”, Hitler’s famous autobiography has a positive turn in this book as it helps save a Jew, Max. Then, with its pages turned white, the book transforms completely and helps forge an everlasting bond between Max and Liesel.
Of course, this book too is not devoid of the gore surrounding the Jews at this point. Though subtle, the book has its fair share of bloodshed. The dominoes that Rudy plays with symbolise the falling bodies. In its most terrifying matter of fact tone, the book has the greatest impact: “For the book thief, everything was going nicely,” Death observes, as the extermination camps flourish in the summer of 1942. “For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.”
But in the end, the book isn’t about Nazi Germany. It is about the power of the written word and the effect of those syllables on human relationship. It is a book on loving other books. Zusak has taken his time and perfected each word, sentence, paragraph and chapter to near perfection. Of course, it would be a cruel irony if the book thief herself was robbed of words. Characters feel as real as flesh, fully clothed and they are true and consistent throughout the book, never betraying us at any point.
Set entirely around the town of Molching, it can be claustrophobic at times, with long and winding digressions by our narrator. It can be endearing and heart tugging in many places – Rudy in his anti-Fuhrer heat painting himself as Jesse Owens, the basement snowball fights, Rosa’s quiet showcases of love, the creations of Liesel and Max’s life experiences – but at the same time, can be repetitive and tiring like Rudy and Liesel’s habitual activities.
This book isn’t one that can be read in a hurry or in a rush. It may seem whimsical and arrogant at times, thanks to the narrator. But this is a book where other books and words of others become precious treasures. And that is a sentiment that cannot be fought against.
“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
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