The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was my selection for Book Club. After I’d read it I felt a bit guilty for inflicting such a harrowing tale on a group of mums. I cried when I finished it. I was on a train. The man next to me was very tactful about not noticing the woman next to him dabbing her eyes. But I must have been slightly naive not to have realised that a story of a girl and a Jew in Nazi Germany narrated by Death would be harrowing.
I chose it because it came with enthusiastic endorsement from another book club. All reviews were endlessly positive. On one of my “What are you Reading” postings a mother said she felt it was her “unwavering duty to extol its virtues.” When I read this I was half way through and wondered if I had the right book. I’d loved the opening pages when Death introduces himself. They were obtusely written and made me think about what the words were trying to say. I liked that challenge. I also loved some of the descriptions: “The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there like driftwood after the flood.” I found this very powerful imagery. But then the book went flat, I, and others at Book Club, felt it fell into a rather dull narration of the girl, Liesel’s, life. But it regained momentum to close with an intense ending, the words that made me cry.
At our book club we didn’t rave about The Book Thief. But we were touched. Perhaps we were influenced by the poignancy of the week we discussed it in; our meeting was two days after Armistice Day; the media full of war and its images and emotions. Waiting in a Post Office queue my eye had been caught by The Guardian’s front page. It was a photograph of those watching the parade of coffins through Wootton Bassett. A young woman with short cropped hair is crying, her face crumpled, mouth downturned in anguish. A man in black tie and jacket has his arm around her shoulder, looking towards her with worry and concern. Behind them a man with a white goatee and red beret, medals and badges on his black waistcoat, is saluting, staring straight ahead. For me it encapsulated war – the devastation of loss but the steadfast loyalty. I felt tears pricking my eyes in that Post Office queue. I bought the paper, the image stuck in my journal to remind me of those emotions.
This was the week Mrs Janes was haranguing Gordon Brown about the loss of her son. This was the week I’d read an article describing how soldiers had been killed and maimed in an old mine field in Afghanistan, one laid by the Soviet’s 25 years ago. They’d suffered terrible loss because the wrong helicopter had tried to land on top of them, setting off the mines. I was devastated by the futility – men killed and maimed due to incompetence, and with no apparent gain in the wider war; the war with no tangible front to fight towards, with no tangible enemy to hold back from our borders. A war which therefore makes the phrase “your son died making a huge contribution to the security of our country” seem nothing but political hyperbole.
With these thoughts and images in mind we discussed The Book Thief. It seemed relevant, for The Book Thief is a book about loss.
Like many I studied Hitler and the Second World War at school. When a subject is perceived to be well known, it’s easy to become blasé. The power of The Book Thief is that the story is told from the perspective of Germans, a Jew, and Death. Whereas it’s easy to become numbed by familiarity, through this clever use of alternative angles, Zusak has revitalised events we thought we all knew, illuminating, vibrantly, the rawness of the war and all the terrible suffering. This, we felt, was its strongest point.
It’s the story of the war away from the front, how it affected normal German families; how our bombs hit them. Death is the narrator, but don’t let that put you off. We felt “he” was almost humanised; we saw his compassion for the souls of those he carried away and ironically, through Death we are able to reflect on human nature “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same things can be both”. Such astute reflections personify Death; it suddenly seems less harsh and more explicable. “I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.” The message is, don’t be afraid of Death but dying, and it is the human race which controls the rate of that “...sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns.”
The Book Thief has many themes. The theme we discussed most was the German perspective of the war and Hitler. I loved how Max, a Jewish character, described Hitler in a story he wrote: “There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life. He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. He would find himself a small strange moustache. He would one day rule the world.” These words said so much, about Max’s bitterness. His clever ridicule of Hitler belittles him despite his absolute power. Words were Hitler’s power. “Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing” Liesel says. Max boxes with Hitler in his mind, a clever scene illustrating Hitler’s powers of manipulation and persuasion. Of soldiers leading a parade of Jews, Death comments “they had the Fuhrer in their eyes”.
“Words” was my favourite theme of The Book Thief. Words are personified, they have power. Liesel loves books, she’s so desperate for them she steals them, hence the title. She learns the potency of words; she reads to her neighbours as they stand listening to bombs in a cellar, giving comfort with her words. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book she recites passages of one of Max’s stories back to him as he is lead away to Dachau – “to concentrate” (a clever play on words which in itself says so much). Max is part of a parade of broken Jews, marched through the town. Liesel steps out of the crowd to call out his words. It gave me goosebumps, an emotive scene of words empowering Max, giving him pride, a physical and mental lift from his stooping desolation.
There is so much suffering in The Book Thief, so much we can barely comprehend what it must have been like; it is difficult for us to truly empathise with the scale of World War 2, the fear, loss and deprivation that people lived under for years and years. At Book Club we agreed that we had taken much away from the book, some were still thinking about it days and weeks after finishing. I have many terrible images: mothers searching through rubble for lost children, desperately calling their names; Liesel seeing her dead brother; a wife clutching her husband’s accordion through the night, wondering if he will return from the fight; Jews scratching desperately at the doors of gas chambers before Death takes them; a mother told her son has died at Stalingrad; another mother told by Nazi officials “we’ve come for your son”. Would we be able to cope with just one aspect of such suffering? We have no idea what it feels like to, for example, leave our beds and run to a shelter to stand and listen to bombs dropping, wondering if we will survive.
We hear on Armistice Day that it’s important to remember. I agree. Only by reflecting on the horrors of what has passed can we try and avoid a repeat. But as remembered this year, the generation who experienced the horrors of the First World War has now passed on. Dr Rowan Williams said “those with first hand memories are no more, the baton of remembrance will have to be taken up by others...the generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery and held together the bonds of our society, our continent, our commonwealth through a terrible century. May we learn the lessons they learned. And God save us from learning them the way they had to.”
Although I cannot join other readers in raving that The Book Thief is the best book I have ever read, I do think it is a book of immense power. There are important messages within it, issues thrown into new clarity by its unique style and different perspective. Reading this book can help us reflect on the reality of war, human nature and the suffering of others.