Mack Hall, HSG
“I am Haunted by Humans”
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is quite a good book, but reading it is not a road to Damascus experience.
The clumsy attempts by the publisher to metastasize The Book Thief into a sort of eternally profitable Harry Potter-ish cultus with study guides, study groups, let’s-hug-each-other websites, and nihil obstats and imprimaturs by Very Famous People are more than a little annoying. Such aggressive proselytizing will alienate the thoughtful people who are presumably the intended audience.
The Book Thief is good enough to deserve your thoughtful consideration, but it will not change your life, drop your jaw, shake your earth, make you cry for a week, reverberate your soul, crawl under your skin, steal your breath, blow your mind, bust your block, pop your eye, stop your heart, fly off your shelf, knock off your socks, jerk your tears, or shift your tectonic plates. The book is good. There is nothing wrong with good. Reviewers seem no longer capable of approving of something or someone without drawing from a catalogue of hyperventilating, hyperbolic cliches’.
Besides, you might not like The Book Thief. If you don’t like the book, and say so, you are an interesting and brave person, since all the reviews command you to like it, nay, love it, and sleep with it under your pillow, and make it your life-coach.
And really, The Book Thief shouldn’t work. The spunky-girl-vs-the-Nazis has been done over and over, and rightly so, but civilization also needs a book about the-spunky-girl-vs-the-Soviets or the-spunky-girl-vs-the mullahs or the-spunky-girl-vs-MS13. A girl can walk alone down a street in Munich wearing jeans and a tee while reading any book she wants, and no will much notice. A girl who attempts any of those things in Teheran or Bagdad – and maybe New York or Calcutta - will quickly be reduced to a violated corpse in a ditch.
Mr. Zusak has accomplished something marvelous in manipulating the convention of spunkiness – his protagonist, Liesel, is sometimes neither spunky nor likeable, which makes her more interesting, and the people in her life are similarly developed as flawed but well-meaning, as are real humans. The fictional humans along Liesel’s street are seldom true believers but rather confused and bullied people who are surprised to have the government for which they voted.
Liesel’s existence pushes the plot, and so she is not a detached observer, but Mr. Zusak develops Himmel Street, Liesel’s world, by surrounding her with people who each could have been the center of the story: Liesel’s foster parents Hans and Rosa, her friends Rudy and Max, teachers, shopkeepers, the mayor’s mysterious wife, schoolmates, a Hitler Youth leader who is a sort of satanic boy scout, and the requisite cloddish teacher. The shortages of everything, including books but also clothing, safety, purpose, hope, and, especially, food, are made real to the reader on almost every page.
The hinge of The Book Thief is the community book burning. This obscenity is also the setting for several encounters which awaken Liesel and Rudy to the adult horrors of their milieu: ethnocentrism, regimentation, conscription, betrayal of trust, a denial of any authority save that of the state, and a denial of history and culture.
The books ordered burned are not technical manuals or math books but rather those which encourage any thought for self or others: religion, poetry, fiction, and philosophy. A technical manual will teach a young person how to fabricate machine parts for an armed pilotless aircraft as well as for a factory that makes needful things; works of fiction, faith, poetry, or philosophy might lead the young person to consider on what occasions one may or may not, before God and secular law, contribute to the destruction of a fellow human being.
The very existence of books threatens tyrants, and his is why Liesel steals books, to keep civilization alive within herself and for others.
The narrative voice is Death, and one at first imagines one of those tiresome, grainy Swedish films with Death as a boring man wearing a dark suit. Mr. Zusak’s Death, a sort of Shakespearean Chorus, is far more interesting as he comments help us understand people and events in the story. But in the end, not even Death understands humanity’s violence to itself. After carrying away a great many souls of individuals we have come to know, Death’s final words, the final words of the book, are “I am haunted by humans.”