Together, We Can Conquer the Word: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

It’s Germany.

It’s Nazi Germany.

And the sky is the color of Jews.

In The Book Thief written by Markus Zusak in 2006 we join the voice of Death as he retells the story of the life of a girl named Liesel Meminger, the orphaned daughter of a communist. The story begins as Death first encounters Liesel Meminger stealing a book in the snow where her brother dies, right before she is transported to her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, at the very humble address of 33 Himmel Street.

Hans Hubermann is a kindhearted, loving, patient and level-headed man who, though simple minded, has quite a lot of luck on his side. The story takes you down to their basement where Hans keeps his paint cans and drop sheets for his day job. And down there, he teaches Liesel how to read and write. Rosa Hubermann is loud-mouthed and scornful, frustratingly strict, and surprisingly a very passionate mother. There are other characters that will enter Liesel’s life as the book takes you five years through it. But in those five years, no one could be a more consistent companion to our heroine than her school friend, Rudy Steiner, a dirty little boy who excels in academics and athletics, and is as much a good a thief as Liesel herself.

We’ll give him seven months.

And then we come for him.

And oh, how we come.

The five years starts from Liesel at age nine, and ends with Liesel at age 14, until Death meets her again. But I won’t tell you how and when. Although here, Death does not hesitate with spoilers. He will give you the details all too early. Death admits, it’s not because he’s being evil or mean, but he tells you all the events beforehand so that it wouldn’t be as painful when he has to tell the full story later on. This unique, almost non-chronological order of the narration—in fact, the unique narrator himself—effectively puts the story in such a perspective where the point-of-view itself is something new to explore. Most books written nowadays are written as if though a movie, something that so quickly and so vividly flashes through your mind. They narrate you with scenes that start and cut off like a film reel. But what The Book Thief offers you is a new friend to sit down with for story time and tea. Rather than display a show, it paints you a picture. And the narration does this because the narration itself has character—the narrator is a character. Given, he is omniscient, but he lives is own life—a life as Death himself. At first, he would seem sinister, possibly enjoying his work or embracing his unique identity as Death. But he will later on try to let you understand what it’s like to be Death, especially in the dark times of World War II in Nazi Germany. And that, in itself, is a new experience.

“When Death tells a story, you really have to listen.”

It contributes greatly to how you get attached to the characters. In fact, you won’t only be attached to the people—you’ll be attached to the setting, the entirety of Himmel street. And you’ll be attached to the words, both English and German, and you’ll learn a good number of them as you read along. At some point, you’ll feel that it’s unnecessarily lengthy for a narration, and you’ll think that there are just parts of Liesel’s mundane life that Zusak could’ve just left out because it takes too long to get to the point. But you’ll be thankful in the end. They say that when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. In the same way, when the Book Thief ends, everything comes back at you and hits you like a strong white flash of magnesium-burning light. The pain you’ll feel at the end of the story will not be the fanatical type of pain when parting with a book or a character. It will be the kind of soft, almost sincere and genuine pain, for remembering all of the memories that were never yours to begin with. And that’s usually so difficult to achieve. For something that uses language in its most unnatural manner, what with all the translations or the mesh of colloquial speech with symbolism, it gives you the most natural, and most immediate emotional impact.

The use of words in this book is just so unique and interesting, that the only flaw I could seem to point out is the struggle a reader might have to get used to it. It’s simplistic, but artistic, in such a way that if you read it like you would any normal-sounding piece of prose, then there is a lot of it that you will miss. And if you do try to slow it down and take it all in, if you’re just a casual reader, then it might need a bit of getting used to. The only difficulty I had with the text was imagining them all speak in English with a German accent, really. But if you get passed that, you’ll enjoy the change in the way things are described. Clouds like tightropes, suns that drip and cardboard lips. The words just come so naturally from Zusak.

And what with all these words? The Book Thief is powerful, not because it’s another wartime Germany survival story. But because it shows you the power of words—the power Hitler gained from using them, and the exact power that Liesel wanted to steal, to take back and return what is rightfully the people’s. That’s the reason why a plot as simple as this takes so much time to build up: because the book itself is an entire lesson, like how we get to watch Liesel learn to read for the first time. The Book Thief progresses like a school that teaches you freedom and control over your own opinions, and use your words because you have a right to do so.

The Book Thief is incredibly ambitious as a novel as most other critics have said about it. But it is an ambition that Zusak was able to reach. Over-all it is a must-have, must-read, and there is no age for it. It’s simple enough for kids to understand, and brilliantly inspired enough for adults to appreciate.

As with the book covers, most of them are just simply trying to illustrate Liesel as she reads, or the face of Death. He still comes in the black Grim Reaper costume and the scythe like how most people imagine him to be. Later on as he narrates, he’ll admit that he’s quite amused with how we see him, but he’s not like that at all. The most recent reprint cover, however, is my most favorite which I think best captures the story entirely–Dominoes. Right now, it doesn’t make sense. And when you read it through, you might not realize it. But at some point, you’ll just come back to it and realize, that the time when dominoes were falling was the time they could’ve made the decision to save someone’s life. Even one, at least. And they were playing dominoes so innocently, you really wouldn’t suspect how crucial this point of the story was. But as with all dominoes, once you tip them over, there’s no stopping what will happen. The story of Liesel Meminger is an entire domino effect of back stories and the business of people that shouldn’t have mattered to her. But it all leads to an end where everything is but a messy floor of toppled rectangular tiles.

8.5? 9? 10/10? I can’t put a number on it. The words have greater power, and I’m afraid that The Book Thief has stolen mine.

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