Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The story, of Liesel, a young German girl during world war II, is told by Death. And Death has an odd way of speaking. It’s a combination of sly, often grim, humor in the storytelling, and interjections of bold-face explanations, sometimes translations of words, sometimes descriptions of a character’s thinking process. For example,

He didn’t go into battle that day

Often the inserts are simply definitions. Emphasizing them in this way draws attention:

Luftwaffe Sondereinbeit
Air Raid Special Unit

The language is often in the passive voice, as

When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then,which were a corroded brown color and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.

The story is also told, in part, with staccato, telegraph-like bursts. As:

“Mixed candy again?” She schmunzeled, to which they nodded. The money splashed the counter and Frau Diller’s smile fell slightly ajar.

“Yes, Frau Diller,” they said in unison. “Mixed candy, please.”

The framed Fuhrer looked proud of them.

Triumph before the storm.

“Figurative language,” they call it. Initially I found the style so irritating that I wasn’t sure I’d get through it. It felt like I was being bludgeoned with fact after fact, metaphor after metaphor. But I thought there may be gold here somewhere so I kept on and found that I was better able to ignore the style as I moved through it.

I also notice that the book is categorized as “young adult”, which initially surprised me, but which may help explain why I found its constant obvious explanations annoying. Perhaps they are not so annoying to younger adults? Or people who think like younger adults?

The story of Liesel, a nine-year-old girl when she is thrown into a foster home, is a story of words. From her first book theft to her efforts to read to story-reading in an air raid shelter to the spreading of words in her own hand, she is acutely aware of the power of words. More than once the story slips into a comparison of her use of words with that of Hitler, who used them as weapons to kill. Her theft of the written word is a metaphor, as I see it, for her theft of power from the more common story told among Germans to themselves.

To me, the value in this story is the insight it offers into a poor German neighborhood during World War II. While non-Jewish Germans obviously did not suffer the same way Jews did, the truly poor were usually the first to be forced into service and to accept sacrifices not required of wealthier Germans. They were also the least powerful, essentially unable to effect any change in the political climate. The story brings home that simplistic notions of what went on in Germany during that war need to be revised.

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