You might think, as I did, that you don’t need another book about Nazi Germany, let alone another movie. And yet, here’s The Book Thief, and there’s The Inglorious Basterds (newBrad Pitt movie, though his performance is way overshadowed by Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Lander.) Highly recommended. But we’re not talking bout that now. We’re talking about Marcus Zusak’s tale of an orphan in a village outside Munich.
There are a number of stock WWII elements in The Book Thief–nasty Nazi’s, conflicted Germans with a conscience, Jews in the basement. However, here’s something decidedly original–death as the narrator. As an author’s device, death has quite a few advantages. He can be everywhere–past, present, future, in and out of the characters’ minds and hearts just like an omniscient narrator. Yet, since he’s speaking in the first person, you get a sense of intimacy you can’t get from old Mr. Omniscient. And Zusak makes death an engaging and sympathetic fellow. A guy doing a job, mind you, but with nothing approaching the ghoulishness of a Halloween specter. “I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s,” he remarks at the outset. And he lives up to his self-billing.
As for our little orphan fraulein, Lisel, she’s just as engaging and captivating as the narrator telling her story. She finds herself at age 10 living with a pair of foster parents far from her first home. Her little brother dies en route, so now she’s an orphan without siblings. Quite an adjustment. She’s got one prize possession–a book called The Gravedigger’s Handbook, which she snatchs on impuldr more or less as a memento, from the snow near her brother’s body. A lot of good it does her. She’s next to illiterate. Can’t even read the title. A fifth grader sent down to kindergarten to learn read. A Brobdingagian among Lilliputians. Another adjustment. She isn’t doing well. Eventually, as you might expect, words save her, but the road to salvation is a bloody and sorrowful one. Full of monstrous deeds visited upon her as well as sins and errors of her own. I was caught up in every minute of the journey.
Zusak is a bit of a magician with the language. A few examples: [Looking at a group in an air raid shelter] “Stillness was shackled to their faces.” “The sound of the turning page carved them in half.” “her wrinkles were like slander. Her voice was akin to a beating with a stick.” “He stood waist-deep in the icy, Decemberish water.” [wish he’d cut “icy,” don’t you?] Lots of stuff like that. Keeps you smiling throughout, just the word turns.
So here’s a book for you. Lots of history. Lots of German. Lots of language. Lots of story. Lots of characters you can cling to. And who cling to you even after you put turn the last page.