Thursday, March 5, 2009
A Conversation with Death: The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
"I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away."
With this, the narrator of The Book Thief introduces himself. He is Death.
Rarely have I found myself so at once repelled and intrigued by a book. I started it over a year ago and was unable to get more than two or three pages in, because the prospect of reading 500-odd pages in Death's voice was more than a little bit disturbing to me. I'm the girl who wakes up in the middle of the night, struck with a throat-gripping realization that I'm going to die some day. And that my parents are going to die someday. And that my husband is going to die some day. And I really can't go any further down the line than that before I'm hyperventilating in the dark and trying to talk myself down off of my morbid little mental window ledge.
So clearly the idea of having to listen to Death talk to me about Nazi Germany didn't really appeal. But at the same time, I could not stop looking at the book. Wondering what story Death had to tell me about the book thief. And one of my best friends recommended it--she couldn't be steering me wrong, herself having dealt with so much death in the past few years. If she could tolerate Death's voice and come out the other side of the book feeling so strongly about it, I had to be able to give it a try.
And I have to say, I fell just a tiny bit in love with Death, as he is presented through the mind of Zusak.
Death tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a girl mercifully abandoned by her mother into the arms of a safe German family, shortly after she witnesses the death of her brother. This death haunts Liesel through most of the book. Even though she is unable to read, she steals the copy of The Gravedigger's Manual, which is left behind after her brother's burial.
Her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her to read the book at night, when she is awakened from her slumber by the nightmare of her brother's death. As she learns to read, she becomes aware of the power of words and under a variety of circumstances throughout the book, finds herself stealing other books--either stumbling upon them and rescuing them from destruction (this is Nazi Germany, after all), or willfully breaking and entering the homes of others to obtain a new book for her collection.
Not long after being taken in as a foster child by the Hubermann's (the both of whom are depicted in such richness and compassion that I fell absolutely in love with them, even when Rosa is bellowing and threatening in her cranky mean-mama bravado), the family is joined by Max Vandenburg, a Jew hiding from the Nazis. He takes refuge in their basement and forges a friendship with Liesel that reaches into the outer stratosphere of poignancy. It is one of those connections that is achingly beautiful and timeless---a Boo Radley to Scout Finch type of powerful. The image of Liesel, a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth movement, and Max, a middle-aged, weak and terrified Jew, seeing each other as allies and friends, defying the mandate of the times, speaks to the power of the individual over tyranny.
Aside from becoming so attached to the characters and loving the irony of Death's compassionate and utterly human voice, I was struck by the theme of the power of words. A young, illiterate girl discovers and falls in love with the beauty of words at the same time a hate-filled, murderous dictator comes to power through the exploitation of words. The night of her town's book burning illustrates this---as Hitler demands the destruction of all pre-Nazi literature in her town, Liesel is compelled to rescue a book she finds left at the end of the burning--unable to part with the treasures that might lie inside the covers of the book, regardless of the crime it might be read it.
And what of Death himself? How is it possible that a reader can come to the end of this book and feel both sorry for, and comforted by, this grim reaper?! It is simply through his use of words---he chooses to share, through his words, the parts of himself and his experience that make us feel for him. He tells us how he is overworked and exhausted by Nazi Germany--how he himself is just a messenger, not a force to despise, but to pity,
"There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what the year is, but 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 far away guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it it least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They often come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realizing I am busy at it is. 'Your time will come,' I convince them, and I try not to look back. At times, I wish I could say something like, "Don't you see I've already got enough on my plate?!' but I never do. I complain internally as I go about my work, and some years, the souls and bodies don't add up; they multiply."
It isn't Death who makes these choices, at least in times of war. It is us. Death wants us to reassure us that he is, in fact, watching out for us, taking care of us in the best way he can, as he recounts in this description of visiting upon a gas chamber in an unnamed concentration camp in Poland,
"The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, slowing down, slowing down... Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fears."
It is impossible not to love this book. The characters, the narration, and the depth of heart poured into every word by Zusak make it one of the most powerful and beautiful books I've ever read.