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Markus Zusak, The book thief

November 20, 2009

In one moment, there was great kindness and great cruelty, and I saw it as the perfect story of how humans are. (Zusak on the Random House website).

Zusak could hardly have chosen, for The book thief, a better setting to explore the best and worst of humanity than Germany during the Holocaust. The book reminds me a little of Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river which also deals with a small German town during the war and the hiding of Jews, though Hegi’s book has a much wider canvas, covering a few decades.

The novel, which is narrated by Death, tells the story of a young girl Liesel (the book thief) who is left with a foster family in a small German town in the lead up to and during World War II. Liesel is treated well by her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and makes friends with people in the neighbourhood including Rudy Steiner, a boy her own age. Not long into the novel, the Hubermann household is also joined by Max, a 24 year old Jewish man whom they hide. From here we follow the family and the neighbourhood as they live through the war. The characters – and there are many of them – are well drawn.

It’s a clever, memorable book. The use of Death as a narrator and its structure, which seems both old world (the chapter titles ‘featuring….’) and post-modern (the inclusion of the illustrated stories, the little bold-type assertions like ‘A small threat from Viktor Chemmel to Rudy Steiner’, ‘He survived like this’), give it a fresh tone which impel the reader on. This tone has a veneer of whimsy while at the same time being deadly serious.

There is a bit of foreshadowing but it’s handled well. It tells us our narrator is omnipotent and warns us that bad things are going to happen (and we know they will anyhow). I don’t usually mind foreshadowing – and agree with Death who says:

Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me.

The star of the book for me is its language. It’s superficially simplistic but is really quite sophisticated. There are some wonderful images – ‘pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face’; ‘they were going to Dachau to concentrate’; ‘rumour of sunshine’; ‘the sky began to charcoal towards light’ – but these are not overdone.

Zusak effectively handles the fact that the characters are German and would be speaking German through the occasional use of German words and phrases. And he lightly translates most of this German for us,  such as ‘”Keine Ahnung’, Rudy said, clinging to the ladder. He had no idea.'” Again, there isn’t too much of this but just enough.

The repetition of the curses – “Saumensch”, “Saukerl”, “Jesus Mary and Joseph” – give it a light touch, as do things like the “Keine Ahnung … He had no idea” above and the gruesome humour of “they were going to Dachau to concentrate”. Again, none of this is overdone. Not too funny, but definite touches of humour. There are those who say you can’t “do” humour and the Holocaust, but I don’t agree: this book is a perfect example of why I don’t.

There is also poetry to the language – with this poetry coming as much through the rhythm, as through imagery:

In the morning he would return to the basement.
A voiceless human.
The Jewish rat, back to his hole.

[and]

She didn’t need an answer.
Everything was good.
But it was awful, too.

[and]

Why him?
Why Hans Huberman and not Alex Steiner.
He had a point.

[and]

Their drivers were Hitlers, and Hubermanns, and Maxes, killers, Dillers and Steiners.

And then there is the frequency of ‘3s’. For example:

  • The Hubermanns lived at 33 Himmel Street (and 33 was the age Jesus Christ was when he died – relevant?);
  • the common curse was ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’;
  • a lot of the rhythms (such as the examples above) come in threes.
  • it is third time unlucky for Hans Hubermann
  • “The Word Shaker” written by Max story starts with “three important details about his life”.

The threes just keep coming. Three is a pretty magical number: the trinity; mind, body and spirit; past, present and future. The concept of “three” is found in most religions and represents, at its simplest, unity.

The novel seems to have two main themes. One is the power of words – to help and to hinder. I loved this, describing Leisel’s surviving the bombing: “the words WHO had saved her life”. The personification of words here, at the end of the novel, is really effective. Words sustain her through most of the book, but there was a point when she nearly gave up on them, as when she tears up a book in the mayor’s house after having seen Max in the Dachau march:

Soon there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words.

BUT the other theme is the one that ends the book: what it means to be human. Death says:

I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, its words so damning and brilliant … tell her the only truth I truly know … I am haunted by humans.

In other words, Zusak, in this book, encapsulates humanity – its best and its worst – and does it through using ordinary people living in/coping with extraordinary times. His message is simply that humans are capable of wondrous things and of heinous things. No astonishing truth really – we all know it – but he shows how closely these can co-exist and how fine the line often is.

Markus Zusak
The book thief
Sydney: Picador, 2005
584pp.
ISBN:033036426X

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2009 10:58 am

    This is an excellent review of a very fine book, Sue…

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    November 21, 2009 1:08 pm

    Thanks Lisa. It’s one of those books you could write forever about. I decided to focus on the language because that is really what makes it so special isn’t it? But there’s so much to say about the characters too. I read it a couple of years ago but the friend I went away with last week was just reading it for the first time which made me decide to get out my notes and blog it!

    • January 14, 2012 2:54 am

      Thanks for pointing me to this review, Sue. I enjoyed reading it. I agree: Zusak’s language is a star. I often wonder how much beautiful prose like Zusak’s just tumbles out in an inspired rush, and how much of it requires re-write after re-write. Hmm. Perhaps someone should ask him.

      • January 14, 2012 9:48 am

        Glad you liked it Libby. Yes, good question. I think for some it just tumbles out … But even then probably needs reworking. You could try asking him … Through his publisher?

  3. November 21, 2009 1:13 pm

    Yes, I do this every now and again, resurrecting notes from books I read pre-blog. How long have you kept notes about the books you read for, Sue?

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      November 21, 2009 1:25 pm

      Hmm…that’s hard to say. It’s been a bit sporadic and very erratically collected. I have notes in diaries I wrote in the 1990s to mid 2000s but I often didn’t write much there. I have a Filemaker Pro database going back to the late 1990s in which I list every book I read but I only write a succinct one sentence review there. I have a WordPro document in which I’ve made notes on about 40 books that have grabbed me over the last few years. And, finally, I have all the posts I’ve written to bookgroups since I first joined Yahoo groups in Jan 1997. Hubby recently converted those to another Filemaker Pro database. I use that a lot when I want to go back but the quality of what I’ve written there various depending on the quality of the discussion and the degree of inspiration I felt! What about you? (I do find it hard resurrecting old notes so I’ve only done it here a few times).

  4. November 25, 2009 7:14 pm

    Your blog is going from strength to strength, with informative and thoughtful reviews throughout.

    I have looked at this book many times in the bookshop but in Britain at least it seems to have been marketed as an older child/young adult book – clearly there is far more to it than I thought.

    This period interests me greatly and I can see that its one I have unfortunately missed so far. Perhaps to be corrected soon!

  5. whisperinggums permalink*
    November 25, 2009 9:05 pm

    Thanks Tom, I really appreciate your comments – they mean a lot to a new blogger like me.

    Zusak has been a children’s writer and when this came out it was marketed in some places as young adult and in some as adult. I think it’s really a crossover book. There are some really well written young adult books that can be a bit ho-hum to adults because their concerns really are “young” but this one’s perspective is wider reaching, probably because of the Death narrator POV. I’m interested in the Holocaust period too – as I think we’ve discussed before.

  6. Caitie F permalink
    November 26, 2009 2:37 am

    This review was great! I could talk about this books for months – the language really is what makes it so amazing though. You chose some of my favorite passages from the book.

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      November 26, 2009 8:04 am

      Thanks Catie – and thanks so much for commenting. It so nice to hear from people who read one’s blog! It is a book you can talk about for months isn’t it? It was hard deciding what to write about in this book but you can’t really go past the language can you?

  7. August 31, 2010 6:44 pm

    I came to this from the Literary Dilettante’s review. Both of you write so well about the book – and yet still I hesitate. Anything to do with the Nazis treatment of the Jews still seems to me to be too raw, too truly horrible to be okay for use as a kind of motif or clever setting in fiction. The books sounds so impressively clever and original, and yet I still resist. Is this a mistake?

    • August 31, 2010 7:09 pm

      Hmmm…is this a mistake? I don’t necessarily think so. I can certainly understand where you are coming from. I think literature can play a big role in helping us process the horror of the Holocaust – but I suspect that’s not your point. You are asking about a “clever approach”, an approach that may focus on the “cleverness” rather than the content? That’s a good question. But I think in this case the approach might engage some readers who may not read another style of approach, and Death is in a very particular position to comment and pronounce on humanity, which I thought worked well.

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  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak « Musings of a Literary Dilettante's Blog

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