Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Book Thief and the Power of Words

My mom taught me to read when I was four. Since then, I’ve had words shoveled into my head by culture, literature, and dozens of other sources. Words are my comfort, words are my song, words are my liberation. The very base of society rests on reading, on communication through little chicken scratches on thin sheets made from trees. Words are essential to our society—regardless of the fact that 14 percent of the U.S.’s population is illiterate.*

Several of my bookish friends have mentioned Markus Zusak’s book, The Book Thief—a bookish book which I booked from the library to bookishly read. There’s no doubt it’s a book that must be grappled with, but gives few answers for the many questions it raises.

The Ideas
Set in World War II, Liesel Meminger’s world is very bleak. Words become her way out. The first book Liesel steals becomes her link with the past, and as time goes on, the books she reads provide a way of staying sane in the insanity. Indeed, this theme is so strong as to verge on preachy. Several characters are saved by books (and an accordion), in various manners. The Fuhrer invites followers, “beckoning them with his finest, ugliest words, handpicked from his forests….Words were fed into them. Time disappeared and they now knew everything they needed to know. They were hypnotized.”

As a longtime lover of books, this message is bound to appeal to me. The love of books reminds me of the semi-worshipful tone used in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart. “There is no Frigate like a Book, To take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson wrote, and I couldn’t agree more heartily. In our age, one that becomes increasingly visual and less verbal, reading is something that should be encouraged. Story is something very Christian—Jesus used parables to make his strongest points, and in The Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…”

But though we should take words seriously, we should not take them too seriously. People like me (and by that, I guess, most people who have the guts to tackle The Book Thief), tend to lean too far in the other direction, attaching a great value—perhaps too great a value—to words, story, and fiction. Hitler’s charisma and speech were very hypnotic and very eloquent, yes, but they were not the only things to blame, and words alone cannot fix the ills of sin. Zusak does admit that words are an ambiguous thing, to be fought with, sometimes good, sometimes bad. But he gives few other examples of transcendent objects worth our time and devotion. Main characters love and empathize, but do not give their reason for it. There is no morality to hold on to, no conviction to “do the right thing.”

The narrator, Death, looking bleakly and sadly at horrible suffering, says

I always say that name when I think of it.
Twice, I speak it.
I say His name in a futile attempt to understand. ‘But it’s not your job to understand.’ That’s me who answers. God never says anything.

That's the only mention of God or a greater metaphysical reality. But remember, this is Death speaking. He doesn’t understand human beings, though he is “haunted” by them. I get the firm impression that hope is one thing he doesn’t understand. And while it isn't overt, there is hope in The Book Thief.

Though there is not a religious or ideological base for the characters’ morals, they are certainly there. Several characters are examples of bravery in the face of evil, and the idea that doing a good deed, regardless of its size, is meaningful. Doing good, even when there is no visible effect, is portrayed as a noble thing. This, at the least, while in keeping with conventional morality, is to be applauded.

The Craft

To be honest, the first few chapters didn’t grab me. The narrator is very original - well, as original as sin. Death is undoubtedly a unique storyteller, but it takes a while to get used to the way Zusak uses him. The first chapters have no dialogue, but just a distant, heavily descriptive, somewhat stream-of-consciousness narration by Death. This made it, at least for me, difficult to get into the narrative, or care about the characters. However, when Liesel, the protagonist, arrives with her foster family, I started to thaw.

Breaking away from the cliché of horrid foster parents (Harry Potter, I’m looking at you), Zusak creates a pair of rounded, unpredictable characters. Rosa is a wonderful feat of flawed first impressions, and despite her rough edges, loves Liesel almost as much as her softhearted foster father: Hans. Along with Rudy Steiner and later, Max Vandenburg, these five form the main cast, though there are many secondary and tertiary characters passing through the narrative.

Set in Nazi Germany, it has all the same plot points as your usual WWII story. Someone harbors a Jew. There’s a book burning. Hitler makes a figurative cameo and his influence permeates the novel. What makes The Book Thief different? Of course, there’s Death’s very distinctive way of telling the tale. His foreshadowing is incredibly effective, dragging the reader farther and farther into the story with tidbits and hints and jumping around in time. One thing is for sure, Zusak is a master at the pageturner, for despite the numerous rabbit-trails and dead-end subplots (reminiscent of Mark Twain), the promise of an interesting ending is so strong that I couldn’t put it down.

Death uses vivid and odd imagery, sometimes effective, sometimes not. A few examples at random:

Speaking of the clouds of racism covering Germany:

Sometimes I imagined how everything looked above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

And of a young fatherless boy:

He was skinny, with soft hair, and his thick, murky eyes watched as the stranger played one more song in the heavy room. From face to face, he looked on as the man played and the woman wept. The different notes handled her eyes. Such sadness.

The Book Thief (2014) Cast: Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush
Other high points: the characters are real. Liesel and Rudy are not your average good guys—they act like eleven-year-olds. Zusak captures the pettiness and tiny, swollen egos and innocent devotion and sharp-edged meanness of little kids. Speaking of sharp-edged things, the entire feel of Zusak’s Germany is very harsh—Liesel’s foster mother curses (in German) like a sailor, and soon enough, so do the kids. While this is seen as completely okay, I wonder how readers would react if the words were in English. Overall, however, I can write it off to showing the poverty and roughness of Himmel Street. Many books would feel trite without that spice of reality (I think of A.S. Peterson’s wonderful duology, Fin’s Revolution, a pirate tale).

In style and feel, I am strongly reminded of the 1987 Steven Spielberg movie, Empire of the Sun. It’s less about a real plot, more about simple life, mere survival in a dystopian world. But despite its meandering plotlines (I shall now attempt to avoid spoilers, but be warned), Empire of the Sun has a strong conclusion, unlike The Book Thief, which ends abruptly, darkly, and in a manner smacking slightly of deus ex machina.

In the end, while survival has been attained (for some), those left go on into a nameless future. Nothing is certain but Death sure don’t get what’s goin' on, and I, the reader, don’t either. The tragic elements have neither the strong moral point of Hamlet, nor the intoxicating hope of A Tale of Two Cities. In short, after 550 pages of small stories united by the anticipation of a climax, the ending did not live up to the tale.

All the same, The Book Thief is a masterful portrait of ordinary life, resilient humanity, and small tales of bravery, and if you have not my author-scruples, you will most likely find it worth the while. If you do, there's always the occasional starkly beautiful phrase that jumps out of the pages to surprise, and it while it displays a dearth of answers, it asks many questions with which readers would do well to engage.

3.5 of 5 stars.


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