The Book Thief

Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

The Book Thief is an ambitious stab at humanity and one that exceeds expectation such that if there is one story that a growing up person must understand in all their young naïveté and vulnerability, it is this; and if there is still one story an adult must remember in all their grown-up cynicism and hopefulness, confused rationality and faith, and for all the brutality and benevolence, madness and compassion that the world has shown, it is also this.

Markus Zusak writes,

“So much good, so much evil. Just add water.” 

It seemed to me like a formula for making one human soul, or the recipe for mankind altogether.

The Book Thief is a young, seemingly ordinary girl–and a petty thieving one at that–whose childhood got caught in the middle of a war. The Book Thief is not afraid to be a child–jagged, skinny, rash and full of life, sometimes careless, other times understanding but never afraid come nightmares and all. The Book Thief is a proud ardent admirer of a peculiar accordion and is whimsical about basement paintings, playful about stealing apples and trespassing libraries, generous with gifts like soiled newspapers, feathers and clouds, and especially sweet about the boy next door.

“How about a kiss, Saumensch?”

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a story of friendship as punishable as it is, of a dangerous secret that meant death, and of a promise very well kept. It is a story of a Jew with feathers for hair whose tortured presence moved like a soundless shadow. The Book Thief is a story of dreams, trains and fists, of Mein Kampf and Standover Man, of a parading Jew and the welcoming little German and the whip. It is a story of a little German and a hidden Jew sleeping, breathing the same basement air in the very birthplace of Nazism.

“Often I wish this would all
be over, Liesel, but then somehow you
do something like walk down the basement
steps with a snowman in your hands.”

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

In the world outside the basement, The Book Thief is a story of street games children play, of neighbors, families, wives with caustic reputations, smoking husbands, proud mothers, fathers, and sons. Here and there, it is a story about death, of bombs and sirens, of people running for cover in shelters as they await for what–for death, for the air raid to stop? In the broad daylight and in camps, it is a story of countless nameless faceless Jews, Russian soldiers, Frenchmen whose only comfort is telling the truth without any difficulty whatsoever which makes truth even more beautiful as it is.

***Michael Holtzapfel–***
The Last Goodbye
Dear Mama,
Can you ever forgive me?
I just couldn’t stand it any longer.
I’m meeting Robert. I don’t care
what the damn Catholics say about it.
There must be a place in heaven for
those who have been where I’ve been.
You might think I don’t love you
because of what I’ve done, but I do.
Your Michael.

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a story of death–and Death himself as he narrates while unflinchingly doing his own job of cleaning after people’s convoluted, tangled web of irreconcilable mess especially on occasions when in an utterly misguided decision that happens all the time, a hundred bodies or so needed to be collected.

***A Small But Noteworthy Note***
I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.
They are not.
They’re running at me.

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Death sees both sides, never meddling in people’s worldly affairs for all their ugliness and beauty, their atrocity and glory. Death constantly overestimates and underestimates human race. Death never understands how people could be broken in many pieces, seemingly defeated and yet able to simply stand up to walk and carry on. Death observes that people are ashamed to cling to life when they are denied of their right to survive and even more so when they deny others this basic right. Even in his busiest moments on the job, in the shadows of his own dark heart, Death admits that it rejoices at the very few courageous souls that struggle, however painfully weak they are, and exert every effort to affirm life. Death respects that and keeps out.

I realized much later that I actually visited
33 Himmel Street in that period of time.
It must have been one of the few moments when the
girl was not there with him, for all I saw was a
man in bed. I knelt. I readied myself to insert
my hands through the blankets. Then there was a
resurgence–an immense struggle against my weight.
I withdrew, and with so much work ahead of me,
it was nice to be fought off in that dark little room.
I even managed a short, closed-eyed pause of
serenity before I made my way out.

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

But most of all, The Book Thief is a story of a little girl’s love for words, for reading words, speaking words and writing words–for all the solace they provide, the kindness they show, the bonds they develop with reading mentors and friends alike, the stories they make, the ruthlessness at which they rule, the propaganda they bring forth, the division and intolerance they create, the necessary diversion they give in the desperation of bomb shelters as people stare blankly–sometimes uncertain, other times certain but never deserving–and wait.

The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel batter. What good were the words?

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

For what it’s worth, the Book Thief does something to you, like Death it steps on you and steals your heart, it breaks you and mends you. If it’s any consolation, you will remember the Book Thief as if you have lived through, saw and felt for every street game and thievery, for each stolen book and glimpse of the sky while in hiding, for each childlike fervent wish and mischievous connivance, for each valid question of why and when, for love and friendship, loss and triumph, shame and tragedy, fear, tyranny and freedom.

I have hated the words and,
I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

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