Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This story recounts a small section in the life of one Liesel Meminger, a nine-year-old foster child, as she lives in Munich during World War II and the people she comes into contact with during this small period. And the narrator of this story? Death himself.

Reading that little summary, I myself would have doubted how good this book could be and would have thought it liable to be extremelye preachy and generally dislikable. This was not the case, and even early on in the book, I feel this is made clear. Death, the character, isn't some figure of malevolence; he is funny, insightful and (despite the irony) remarkably human. It is only towards the end that it made clear that he is not human- he is something more. But the book does not dwell on such things. This is the story of Liesel, not death's job during World War II. Personally, I felt in some ways death was used as the narrator because in our minds he is as unsympathetic and as cruel a thing we can think of, especially in a War environment. Many would see him as snatching away their children- why not let them survive? But he makes it clear that it is his job to collect the souls and allow them to move on. He takes no life prematurely- he has no choice in the matter of taking them.

The story is ultimately about the power of words. It begins as reading and how that helps Liesel escape and then it begins to transform. Seeds of ideas are planted in her, and they grow and take on new life to her. She begins illiterate and yet she becomes a force to be reckoned with- this small German girl. There is the wonderful passage when she is angry and it says how the words which until then had merely moved beneath the surface suddenly break through. Then she knows what to say, how to say and, most importantly, why it needs to be said.

The setting of World War II is fantastic for showing this because Hitler himself is well-known as being a great orator. He managed- with words and manipulation- to unite a struggling country and keep them united despite almost all hardship. I do not deny ths importance of Nazi military might or any of the more heinous things he did, but he began as man who spoke with zeal and could inspire those around him. (Maybe I'm baffling a bit; half of my A-Level- a pre-University qualification- is based on Germany in the 1900s.)

When it comes to characters, I thought they were all brilliant. I loved Rudy, Hans, Rosa and Max because Zusak wrote such believable and wonderful characters. They didn't fall easily into the stereotypes we have of people living in that era (within reason). Part of the way he did that was by not letting the era define them. War doesn't touch Munich very much until well into the book and even then it is mostly sporadic. This distance from War both allows for comparison and stops this book becoming preachy.

But my favourite character was Death himself. Liesel was smart, hopeful and reaslistic girl but at the same time she was the hero and, frankly, I find her less interesting in comparison to Death. Part of the reason she is important and notable is because Death sees her as such. But Death has a personality and a colourful (no pun intended) one at that. Though it isn't expressly said, I feel as though he dislikes death. He talks about the colours of the sky when he collects a soul, since he doesn't want to look into another dead face, another pair of empty eyes. His eternal existence has also left him cynical and often poetic. Perhaps it is ironic that Death enjoys quite simple pleasures as an interesting phrase (but then, that is what I saw the theme as).

I think that this is too long a book to sum up, and the ideas it explores render near impossible to sit down and narrow my thoughts of this book down concisely and precisely. The only other thing I much mention (without giving away anything) is the end. Simply put, it was the kind of ending you accept as inevitable but dislike all the same.