Markus Zusak, The book thief

In one moment, there was great kindness and great cruelty, and I saw it as the perfect story of our 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.


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


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


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