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The Book Thief  – then and now

I read this book, 5 star reviewing it, back in 2007, and it rather hung around in my mind. However, I must have either borrowed it from a friend, or a library, as it seems not to be on my shelves. So……….when offered the opportunity to re-read again, for free, by the publishers, as a link-in to the recent film I jumped at the chance.

Book Thief

I read the book again (and it resonated strongly for me again) but I got interested in what grabbed me then, and now.  Back in 2007 I wrote this:

Every word of praise this book has received is richly deserved

This is a book so beautiful, so tragic, so tender, about the depths and the heights of what it means to be human, and despite the horror of its subject matter – the Holocaust, it speaks of redemption, of hope and of what brilliance humanity is capable of.

Though this book is a novel, told from an unusual angle – that of a young German girl growing up in Germany in the 30s, it surely speaks of real acts of compassion, bravery, tolerance and understanding which quite ordinary people carry out. Even though there is an awful ‘herd instinct’ which we can also follow, which denies the other an equal humanity with ourselves, and which demagogues and the power driven can exploit, there have always been those who arrive at a more real understanding, and act with heroism, often at cost to themselves.

A book that deals with this subject matter can never have a ‘happy ending’ – every character we have grown to care about in the book – like every ‘real’ survivor, carries the burden, weight and memory of all those millions who did not survive.

That’s why books – whether factual or fiction, about our most awful dark history need the-book-thief-movie-markus-zusak-interviewto be written – we need to remember, we need to have an awareness of both the best and the worst we may be capable of.

The actual craft of writing in the book is wonderful, clear, deceptively simple, without obfuscation or pyrotechnics. One of Zusak’s subtexts is the magic (real magic) of the word. We don’t generally think about what an extraordinary feat language itself is, what an amazing development it has been for us as a species. The demagogue unfortunately is one who DOES understand the potency of language, and uses it to manipulate. The Book Thief follows a different route, and shows us how language can heal – language, the ability to name, to conceptualise, and to consider, offers us a tool to communicate for understanding.

The 2014 re-read, in the light of the release of the film, provoked additional thoughts:

Writing this warm, this kind, must break the reader’s heart

I firstly must state I have no desire to see the film, there is something about the connection to the subject matter of the book and the act of reading words which have a profound resonance which no film can give. The power of private reading, and the seeping of words into the reader’s mind, the ways in which the reader creates images, this is the subversive power of literature. Now I love film, but the film-maker makes decisions on what I see and experience in a way the writer can’t. Film is of course a collaborative, collective medium: it is true the film watcher will have their own experience of the film, and there is much to be said for the collective experience if an audience watch together in a cinema – but I always have a slight resentment at the fixity of film, the manipulation of film, by choice of shots, editing, takes, the deliberate use of score and cinematography to ‘play’ the audience.

Perhaps what engages me about reading, is the unpredictability of the individual reader response, some sort of mysterious, personal engagement (or not) between the solitary writer and the solitary reader. What might happen differently for the reader because of the place (geographical, temporal) where the reader is engaged. What are the effects of ‘real-life’ seeping into the reader’s reading?

So……this second reading provoked me into no, no, no for the idea of seeing the film.

The second major arising is, curiously, when I first read it I had absolutely no perception at all that this was a book ‘for Young Adults’ or as it might have been then ‘older children’ So when I recently read such phrases as ‘Marcus Zusak’s book for Young Adults’ I had jaw-drop moments. Sure the central characters are children/early teenage, so the book is filtered through the narrator (Death) filtering through their perceptions, but I guess I always saw Death as the narrator, rather than Liesel, though Liesel is the central character.

book thief seed

And what I had forgotten, completely, were the heart-breaking illustrations in the book which Max leaves for Liesel, The Word Shaker.

Others with more advanced touch-screen ereaders may have a different experience – but I always end up grinding my teeth in irritation at the virtual experience of reading when there are illustrations, and having to rescale page size and scan in order to read the tiny handwriting.  So this was frustrating in virtual, taking me away from the emotional engagement with those illustrations. Go real, new reader, with this, eschew ereading!

book thief painting

So, I come back again, to the pleasure of this book which recognises the nuances and complexities of being human. It’s a book about the horror of the Holocaust, but, more, the horror of ignorance, prejudice and manipulation which gives rise to the expression of those aspects of human nature which create Holocausts, which allow them to happen.

The suffering faces of depleted men and women reached across to them, pleading not so much for help – they were beyond that – but for an explanation. Just something to subdue this confusion.

The Liesels, the Rudys, the Hubermanns, Steiners and Maxs are as much potentialities within all of us as those potentialities to ostracise and scapegoat the ‘other’ and to put them beyond the pale by dehumanising them.

standover man

The Book Thief reminds me again of the subversive, challenging power of human imagination, its aspirations and achievements, and all that language can be. And how the writer can make the half aware, half awake reader, come alive and notice.

When he turned the light on in the small callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father’s eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot.

The Book Thief Amazon UK
The Book Thief Amazon USA