Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief"

Narrated by Death, this story does not belong to Death so much as to Liesel Meminger, the book thief of the novel's title. It is a Bildungsroman of a German girl living with foster parents, the Hubermanns, in Himmel Street, in Molching, a town outside Munich, during World War II and the Holocaust. While the novel empathizes deeply with Jewish suffering (in the description of Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by Hans Hubermann, and of the marches of the Jews through Molching on their way to Dachau), its ambition is to depict ordinary Germans living through a harrowing time. 

There is the promise-keeper Hans Hubermann, who was saved by a Jew during WWI, and tries to repay the debt by hiding his savior's son in the basement of his house. There is Frau Holtzapfel who loses both sons to the Russian front, one of whom cradled the other dying in the hospital. There is Frau Diller, the fervent Nazi, who keeps the candy store. There is Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, who mourns in her big house for her dead boy. There is Rudy Steiner, who dreams of becoming Jesse Owens, and loves Liesel with all his boyish heart. Without simplification but with a great deal of sympathy, the novel traces the moments of heroism, bullying, hardship, pain, and fear in their lives. Many of them are bound, with Max Vendenburg, through survivor's guilt. 

The story sags a little at the beginning and in the middle due to the repetition of similar incidents, and too much foreshadowing. The ending, with the bombing of Himmel Street and the sole survival of Liesel, is plausible but threatens to render everything before it meaningless. This threat is, of course, the ever-present threat of war and death, but since the novel eschews easy absurdism it needs to generate some kind of consolation for the existential chaos.  The survival of Liesel is thematically unsatisfying. Having accompanied Liesel through her growing-up years, the reader wants to see her safe, but the novel insists that survival is an arbitrary matter. The reader wants to believe but also to be honest. 

This conflict between our desires and the world's randomness is not quite resolved at the completion of the novel's shape. This conflict is, perhaps, another aspect of Adorno's contention about Auschwitz and writing poetry, for how can we contain arbitrariness within a predetermined form, and still believe in that form? 

Born in Sydney, Zusak is the son of an Austrian father and a German mother. According to his Wikipedia biography, his father was a commercial house painter, the same job Hans Hubermann does and loves. In her youth Zusak's mother witnessed the march of the Jews through her German town, much the same way as Liesel does. In the latter's love for books, the author has, perhaps, also given something of himself, as well as in Rudy's touching early adolescent feelings for the book thief. 


Patricia Markert said...

Max, the hidden Jew, draws on the pages of Hitler's Mein Kampf because it is the only paper available to him, adding a graphic element to the book with the pictures that appear in the book (not that they are needed, it might have been better if we had just imagined what the drawings were). So Max is a book thief too.

Jee Leong Koh said...

That's absolutely right. Thanks for highlighting that, Patty.