Wednesday, June 4, 2014

'An Expert at Being Left Behind': Brief Reflections on The Book Thief

This won't be a long post because this book is very popular and deservedly acclaimed but I just want to add my comments and strong recommendation:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of the most beautifully written and uniquely heartbreaking books I've ever read. It is laced with metaphors and creative imagery which are not cliched but feel fresh and original and weave together like prose-poetry. 

The following passage is a supreme example, coloured with the extended motif of food/fullness/emptiness/consumption, one of various motifs used in relation to words themselves -  the reading of them, the writing of them - their mere existence: 

"Those images were the world, and it stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words. You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards. Don't make me happy. Please, don't fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your very eyes, eroding me? I don't want to hope for anything any more. I don't want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner. Because the world does not deserve them." (524)

"It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors - an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really" (15)

Not-leaving: An act of trust and love, often deciphered by children. (43)

Narrated by Death, the story is that of Liesel Meminger, a young girl passed on to new parents, her relationships with those around her and the books and words she encounters during a fractious period in WW2. She develops a penchant for stealing books and this mediates her experience with the world around her and how she interacts with it. Clearly Death is fascinated by her - with an extraordinary capacity for sympathy/empathy and compassion- and the reader sees her through Death's eyes as he/she/it is kept busy in Nazi Germany. The characters closest to Liesel are all endearing, unique and often inspiring in their raw humanity and even as the ending is relayed and foreshadowed before it's even reached, their lives and interactions garner immutable meaning. 

The story is suitably heartbreaking but incredibly endearing and enriching. The narration, from the perspective of a characterised Death works so well, (despite taking a while to adjust to and not question), and it feels appropriate for the contextual/historical reality/presence of overwhelming death. I was in floods of tears at the end, not necessarily because it was a distressing subject (though it is) but because of that rare beauty in how something horrific could have been relayed so poignantly and beautifully and given meaning in unmeaning. This is how to tell a story. Even if the subject matter hadn't been so moving I would have been deeply moved by the depth and poetry of the language itself - the way each image is so carefully constructed and the strokes with which information is relayed. 

Geoffrey Rush is the perfect Hans
This is certainly a book that I would recommend to anyone whether they are interested in history, language, prose, poetry, or generally in the human condition. Zusak shows in this book that he is a master of his craft and any reader will go away feeling enriched. This is one for the ages. 

N.B. I should also add that I happened to see the film before reading the book and now feel it bore hardly any resemblance to the intricacies and affectations of the story, so much of which comes from the language and narration. It also omitted some seemingly small but crucial parts, despite the good casting and performances by the people in and behind the motion picture. 

Further quotes:

(Liesel's perspective): I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I  hope I have made them right (533)

(Death's final note): I am haunted by humans (553)

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