The first words of The Book Thief, the extraordinary work by Markus Zusak, reassure all readers that ‘You are going to die’. As the story unfolds with these uncomfortable if undeniable truths, a girl named Liesel Meminger is growing up on the poor side of Munich during the height of Nazism, a period that most of humankind would rather forget. She also happens to love books, and steals with impunity. Fostered by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her life is complicated further by the arrival of Max Vandenburg, a German Jew. Caught between the fanaticism of a country in thrall to Hitler, her love for her new family and her friends, Liesel turns to books, to words, to survive.
To Liesel, books mean something, something tangible and important in that savage time. With Death as an omniscient narrator, the Book Thief does not blunt or sugarcoat uncomfortable truths, and indeed uses this discomfort as well as some unorthodox prose to delve deep into the brightest and murkiest sides of human nature. From the gas chambers of Auschwitz to the euphoria and despair of teenage love, nothing is left unexplored. With a film produced by Babelsberg Studios coming out later this month, it will be interesting to see how -or even if- they manage to weave the complex, murky, magic that Zusak does. How are they going to convey the hopelessness of Death, the omniscient narrator, as it carries the souls of dozens of concentration camp victims, realising that ‘the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye’?
As Liesel navigates the pitfalls of adolescence as well as the pitfalls of growing up in Nazi Germany, Zusak creates a complex and multifaceted universe. Compared to some war fiction which can sometimes succumb to the temptation of polarising opposing forces, using Death as a narrator blurs the lines into a sometimes confusing ‘ugly stew’ of people. From the French Jews dying in Auschwitz, to the German soldiers murdered in Stalingrad, to the English pilot crashed on Liesel’s street, to Death we are all the same. The narrator recognises one of the quintessential dilemmas of people living through times of turmoil, as our world always will be in turmoil: ‘I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both’. How can humans be so beautiful and so evil at the same time, and how are we capable of doing the things we have done? It’s a common dilemma, ruthlessly exploited by Zusak, who, with a certain amount of irony, names Liesel’s road ‘Himmel Street’, ‘heaven’ in German.
The importance of words is at the heart of this book, reflecting the novel’s emotional complexity and impact. The Road of Yellow Stars, for example, is described as a ‘leper’, an ‘infected sore’ on the German land. Let’s not forget that Hitler was injured in World War One, and from there did all his conquering with words themselves. Mein Kampf might be nothing more than a long-winded, bigoted, rant, but it certainly struck a chord when simple descriptive words like Juden and Kommunisten became death sentences. These labels, mysterious when seen through a child’s eyes, become all the more arbitrary and heartrending when Liesel finally discovers what they entail. Words, beautiful and awful, are power. For an illiterate girl growing up in the 30s, with a Communist for a father and ‘dangerous dark-brown eyes’, they are all she has. It is in itself refreshing to see an author who recognises the power of words, what they can make and what they can destroy all in an instant.
Yet war is on the horizon, looming quite literally like a spectre. Although it provides the crucial background for the novel and is the main plot driver, The Book Thief remains an intimately personal story of Liesel’s journey through her forest of words. Always unique, compared to the stock image of Death on the hunt for fresh souls, Zusak’s narrator compares war to ‘the new boss who expects the impossible’. To Death, there is nothing noble about war, just so many souls, so many colours, and so many stories. Without spoiling the plot too much (although fans of the book will know that Death does this very early on), living in a poor part of Germany in the 1940s sends warning signs flashing through the minds of anyone who knows the word Blitzkrieg.
By the end of the novel, it’s impossible to look at either books or words in the same way. I’m sure everyone reading this has had books or novels that have marked different stages of their lives, and reading about Liesel marking her life with different books creates a curious sort of window effect. But the unavoidable stark, horrifying background and Zusak’s mastery of emotional complexity is what makes the book so unique. Tragedy, despair, cruelty, humour, love, and irony jumble together to reveal the full spectrum of human emotion and colour, the characters seeping into your mind. Characters like Rudy, the boy with ‘hair the colour of lemons’ who is desperately in love with Liesel, Hans, the decorator/ accordionist with silver eyes and a penchant for rolling cigarettes, and Rosa, a woman shaped like a wardrobe who berates and loves her family in equal measure. After following the characters, like Death, as an observer through this emotional whirlwind, ‘I am haunted by humans’.