The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (AGAIN)

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This is going to be a hard review to write (and I am sorry in advance that this is now the second time The Book Thief is being reviewed in Bookstravaganza — alas I need to see the movie next week and reading the book beforehand was an absolute must.  Also: apologies for the wordiness of this entry, having just finished a flurry of papers, my brain is not exactly functioning at optimal efficiency.)

Through The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells us the story of Liesel Meminger, who as a child is abandoned by her mother and adopted by Hans and Rosa, a couple living on Himmel Street in the German town of Molching.  The story is told from the perspective of Death as it progresses from the late 30’s into the thick of the Second World War.  If you have seen the trailer for the film now in theatres, you will discover that Liesel’s family at this time also bravely takes in a Jewish man, Max.  Zusak, an Australian born to German parents, has said that he never intended the novel to be a Holocaust novel or even a Second World War novel, although these conflicts exploding around Liesel and her family is the driving pulse of the novel.

Much of this novel is based around words.  At the very beginning, illiterate Liesel becomes obsessed with books; as she learns to read, she begins to steal more, thus becoming the book thief.  Zusak uses the meaning of knowledge rather cleverly, weaving in with the brutal reality of Hitler’s Third Reich, an empire basically built on false knowledge.  I appreciated this part of the novel, especially the impact of Liesel in her own journey of becoming an educated character.   Living in a world where female literacy is still largely contested in many places, I believe Zusak’s choice of even revolving the story around her is important, and probably understated.

As I also feel about the German perspective — a perspective that has been largely ignored in Holocaust/WWII fiction.  I appreciate Zusak’s efforts to evoke innocence in the least innocent force of this genocide.  Subjects like the Holocaust sometimes create distract from this, urging the pointed finger and finding heartless people to blame, and consequently we often forget the context of the Holocaust’s conception.  Perpetrators often become victims, victims often become perpetrators — and so children like Liesel who were born into a starving household already marked by the consequences of war cannot be wholly ignored.  Although despite her hardships Liesel seems to triumph morally, children often like her didn’t, and were completely sucked in by the “BLAME THE JEW” dogma.  At the same time, there was a lot of agency in the German population; characters like Hans reflect the depth of the German perspective and less-than-enthused attitudes towards the Fuhrer and his Third Reich.

Now I might be hassled for this one, but I felt less than inspired by Zusak’s characterization of Death.  Narration felt stilted and the flow continually halted by short sentences that I believe Zusak attempted to feel impacting.  Death’s seeming lack of attention span with interjections constantly projecting into the future and then back into past were sometimes confusing.  I’ve read some other reviews, in which Zusak’s style has been lauded as experimental, but— Sorry for a useless interjection now, but this is the exact moment where I have discovered that Nelson Mandela has died…  Death, you bastard…..—- okay, back with it — but I just found that his style wasn’t experimental enough.  There was just something missing in this character, probably because it’s a massively complicated one and considered rather beyond the scope of a mortal mind.

I suppose this takes me into my biggest concern (concern, not criticism, because I am still digesting an issue which I may never properly come to a conclusion): the nature of any artistic representation of the Holocaust or World War II.   Now there is that old cliché that writing about it (Schlink, Foer, Boyne), making a movie about it (Spielburg, Lanzmann, Benigni), even just talking about it (Arendt, Gibson,  David), the Holocaust will get you noticed.  Even though I do call Everything is Illuminated one of my favourite books, I am still wary of any emerging flavour-of-the-year Holocaust hits, especially by authors with indirect ties to the subject.  To me it seems audacious.  Almost too much so.  And so let’s just say, I’m more than difficult to impress.

After taking a course I believe was appropriately titled “Representing the Un-representable,” I have better understood the dangers of taking up this subject too lightly, the ways writers can be motivated perhaps by the wrong reasons (as a storyteller myself I can’t tell you how much these very words IRK me, but it is that part of me that needs to be reined in).   The Holocaust is in danger of becoming an aesthetic.  Think now about the most beautiful Holocaust movies, the most beautiful lines or metaphors or scenes, even in the warm photoshopped stills of The Book Thief on screen; they all capture this sensitivity we are drawn to and cannot condemn. They dare us to understand the scope of what they represent, the scope of which their creators themselves cannot understand.   So how dare we as readers or viewers truly understand what is being represented?  And how can those who try to represent it really know what they’re representing?

Zusak throws out poetic sentences as if they’re going out of style, scratching only at the surface of this subject through the metaphor.  Yet, through the eyes of the preeminent Death, a narrator who is of the utmost authority on death and therefore life, he also tells us that this novel is the ultimate way of understanding something that cannot be understood.  Zusak’s moral message might be honourable and the novel as a whole may seem modest, but taking on this subject is no method of modesty.  Adorno once said: “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”   Although as an artist I despair at this… maybe, just maybe, this is worth thinking about?

Books Read: 2

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4 responses to “The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (AGAIN)

  1. While I mostly disagree with your concerns, you’ve given me a lot to ponder! Thank you for that! What really struck me about The Book Theif is the way it ends without wrapping things up in a neat, understandable package. It’s like the final message is that we will never fully grasp something of this scope. I’m not sure any subject matter should be off limits for artists, but I do think some require more thought and care than others.
    (Also, I loved Death’s characterization — though I wouldn’t have called his writing experimental.)

    • Haha, yeah my brain is often far too much about pondering. It’s almost too much for even me to handle.

      I would disagree that by actually ending The Book Thief, he is wrapping up the story in a package. There is no story about the Holocaust that isn’t rejecting understanding about it. I guess what I was trying to convey is that writing a book is 100% intentional – what the author describes is put into words, what is put into words is for our understanding. Zasuk doesn’t spend 560 pages just to tell us we can’t understand it. He’s already conveyed 560 pages of text that we can understand.

      Whether we like it or not, the choices we make as artists already confine the subject we decide to take on. By something as huge and incomprehensible as the Holocaust into words, we communicate that we believe the Holocaust is capable of being understood…

      Haha I am being rather judgmental though. Personally Zusak has rubbed me the wrong way, and I just couldn’t help but to read a text that was trying just way too hard and taking on way too much. I read a few interviews where he said he wrote it just for himself — I believe that up until the moment where he decided to publish it, haha. But I can’t deny I’ve tried writing about equally incomprehensible subjects. I think we become intoxicated with this idea that we can understand just enough to write it all down.

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