Sunday, June 28, 2009

Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

I’ve just finished reading an exceptional book written by a young Australian author, Markus Zusak, that I’d like to tell you about. It’s not only an interesting story he has to tell, but also a provocative one: the more I read, the more inspired I was to apply the ideas presented in the book to my own life…and to wonder, in the manner of people in the throes of reading good fiction, if the book isn’t somehow, magically, just a little bit about me. That was, to say the least, an unexpected reaction because this book is not about someone overtly like me at all, but about an eleven-year-old girl. And yet…one of the things about mirrors is that you can see your own face in the glass no matter who manufactured the mirror or the glass or the wooden frame, and no matter what face appeared in the mirror just a moment before yours did when someone else stood where you are now standing and peered into it and saw himself or herself (but surely not you) looking back.

Zusak’s other books are all novels written specifically for the young adult audience. (You can read about him and his other books here if you’d like: In fact, The Book Thief too was first published in Australia for a young adult audience. Only it somehow managed to catch on with adults as well and, by the time it was published here, it was (and is) being pitched at adults. And that makes a lot of sense to me: Zusak’s book is a very interesting, very challenging portrait of a young girl growing up just outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Narrated by Death (who, it turns out, is way better company than you’d think) and depicted through the eyes of the child in the story, the book is really about how natural it is—and how normal and how simple—it is to accept the reality of life around us without question. And the book is also about the ability of people under extraordinary circumstances to rise up unexpectedly—and wholly uncharacteristically—over the givens of their world and, subtly and unexpectedly, to behave exceptionally.

Zusak’s book is about a group of children for whom Nazism is a given. They were all babies or toddlers when Hitler came to power. Now, as the war (and the meaty part of the book’s plot) begins, they are all eleven or twelve. They didn’t choose to live in Nazi Germany. They don’t recall pre-Nazi times. They have been taught by all the people of authority in their world—their teachers in school, their youth leaders, their pastors in church, their coaches, the municipal authorities in their town, even the police officers and the shopkeepers they encounter daily—that the basic principles of Nazism are far more like natural laws than debatable political theories. Of course, the demonization of Jews is part of all this. For most of the children, it is simply taken for granted, not unlike the way children today don’t think to challenge the scientific principles they are taught in high school (and are rewarded for mastering well enough to declaim as unassailable truths when exam time comes). Think about your own high school experience: did you really bother to wonder if the facts they taught you in biology or physics class (or, more unsettlingly to consider, in history class) might have been not true at all, but rather part of some sort of elaborate hoax designed not to teach you about the world at all, but to inculcate certain specific political theories in you by making them basic to your worldview? Me neither!

Molching, the fictitious village in which the story is set, is close enough to Dachau for the residents eventually to become used to seeing Jewish prisoners marched through town on their way to the camp. That these gruesome parades of captured Jewish individuals are wholly unnecessary (because railway lines went directly into the camp) doesn’t seem to strike anyone in the book as peculiar: the point of parading the Jewish captives is to degrade, not to transport, and also to warn the locals what happens to people who fall out of favor with the authorities. What’s interesting is how basic the concept becomes: the people in the book do not appear to hate Jews or even to think about them much. Some of the homes of Molching’s former Jewish residents have been re-assigned to Aryan families. Others remain boarded up. Some Jewish shops have re-opened under new management. Others remain closed. No one seems to care. The emaciated prisoners being marched through town arouse almost no interest at all precisely because there is nothing especially interesting about them. They are just part of how things are, no more and no less.

But Liesel Meminger’s parents are capable of more than gawking at captured Jews. Her father (really her adoptive father, although the story is a bit more complicated than that) helps an elderly Jew who stumbles and falls, giving him a bit of bread. And this simple act—depicted in context as something short of being an actual crime, although not by much—sets into motion a series of events that eventually lead to Liesel’s father, who is old enough in 1942 to be a veteran of the First World War, being drafted and given one of the most dangerous jobs military service could provide in those days: an above-ground coordinator of community safety during Allied air raids. And there is more to it than that: through a complicated series of events, also rooted in her adoptive father’s role in World War I, the Meminger family is also harboring a fugitive Jew in their basement until the incident with the bread draws unwanted attention to the family and the Jewish man, a former boxer named Max Vandenburg, must flee.

I won’t give away the ending of the book. And I won’t say that the author has written a perfect novel either. (There are, for example, moments when his prose misses the mark and ends up sounding more precious than sharp or sardonic. And there are twists in the plot that will strike most readers as, to say the least, improbable.) But, on the whole, the book is a good mirror to hold up and to peer into because it asks the deepest kinds of questions, and it asks them well and forcefully. Are we who we are or are we who the world has made us into? Are we free agents capable of acting as independent men and women in the world, or are we slaves to assumptions about the world that we’ve never even thought about resisting, let alone about abandoning completely? Are we brave or are we cowardly…or, worse, are we more like living pieces of driftwood that, neither brave nor cowardly, are simply buffeted along on waves of belief and sentiment we can barely perceive at all, let alone consider carefully and evaluate honestly?
(June 27, 2008)

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