It’s not often that we can find light in a period as dark as the Holocaust. But The Book Thief by Markus Zusak attempts this with flair. The novel follows Liesel Meminger as her story unfolds in the fictional town of Molching–near Munich–in Nazi Germany. All of nine, she travels to Molching, with her mother and little brother Werner, to be given up as a foster child. Even before they reach the town, Werner dies and a devastated Liesel is given to the Hubermanns for adoption. From there on, the story takes the reader through Liesel’s daily life, as she tries to adapt to her new home with her foster parents.
Liesel finds a loyal friend and partner-in-crime in Rudy Steiner, her schoolmate. He’s her saukerl (boy pig), and she his saumensch (girl pig). Together, they steal various things–books included–every now and then; they seem to enjoy it as it’s the only act they have control over in their otherwise war-ridden lives. Having seen proof of the power of words (‘Heil Hitler!’, ‘communist’, ‘Jew’), Liesel yearns to read better and her foster father Hans willingly obliges to teach her. He even sits by her bed, every night, when she suffers from nightmares. On the other hand, her foster mother Rosa is quite typical of foster mothers represented in literature–rather gruff and foul-mouthed. However, the woman does care for Liesel.
Through Liesel’s story, the novel seeks to shed light on the sad plight of both the attacker and the attacked, Germans and Jews, army and civilians, blurring the very definition of an antagonist. The author sketches a holistic perspective of all the characters, and therein emphasises that not all Germans bought into the Nazi propaganda to rid the world of Jews.
Liesel and the Hubermanns go out of their way to save their Jewish friend Max Vandenburg. They hide him in their basement, even as the German troops scout every nook and corner of the town for Jews. Rudy–with his ‘lemon-coloured hair’ and blue eyes, which were considered proof of ‘genetic supremacy’ of the German Aryan race–idolises the black Olympian player Jesse Owens. He even paints his own body with charcoal to look like his hero, without a care for the racist regime he had to live under! That’s not all. These German residents try to give bread to the tortured Jews when they’re being paraded on the streets, despite being flogged by the Nazi soldiers for doing so.
Throughout the book, death and destruction are imminent, as Death–the narrator–gives it all away right in the beginning. Death is certainly not an ingenious storyteller. But rest assured, he’s a reliable narrator. Zusak’s choice of Death for a narrator is certainly apt for a novel set in the horrific time of Holocaust. He’s omniscient–both literally and metaphorically–flitting between various timelines, unbound by geography, even as death plagues the war-ridden country. And this way, the author tactfully takes the reader into the tiniest details of Liesel’s life and just as easily teleports the reader to the larger political developments that are bound to stir the girl’s life.
Mind you, Death is no Grim Reaper. He has a heart; he sympathises with his victims. He’s gentle when he carries the poor souls away and he always takes a moment before doing so. His soft nature is in stark contrast to the Führer‘s regime that causes all these deaths in the first place. It’s almost as if Death is more humane than humans, and death more peaceful than life.
Zusak works the story, seamlessly, to question our presumptions about race and faith, our prejudices about the rich and poor, and our preconceptions about life and death. This novel does not seek to explore the dangerous living conditions of Nazi Germany. Nor does it harp on about the inhumane propagandas of Hitler’s regime or the bloody trail of the Holocaust. Instead, The Book Thief spins a beacon of hope into an event in history that’s better known for the failure of humanity.