The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Reading

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Literature is a product of creative imagination. A writer, by uttering his/her imagination, discusses issues breathing in a society. The issue is examined carefully. But the function of literature is not to present society and its matter as it is. It rather aims to show it in a new light through the power of narration. It discusses “How to tell it to make it real?” It might flatter, comfort or deceive but forgets not to offer an unflinching truth.

Books come in different flavour or to quote Francis Bacon few books are ‘to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.’ Work that is termed as ‘classic’ represents the period in which it was written .It has a certain universal appeal too. But modern readers crave for something that is new. A world that has witnessed wars, genocides, despotic rulers, racial differences, hardly find pleasure in the teachings of ancient or in the rainbow world of Shakespeare and Austen. They are concerned with much that is contemporary. A great work of literature touches us to the depth. Markus Zusak’s “ The Book Thief ” has been called a classic .Set during the World War II , dealing with the subject of genocide, having god- like characters (like Liesel Meminger and Max Vadenburg) and an admirable technique of narration makes it a timeless piece.

Here is a small Fact –
You are going to Die

It is always said that war and death are bosom buddies. But Zusak’s “The Book Thief” is suffice to proof that unlike war, Death carries a heart. Liesel Meminger a young girl whose arrival at Munich left an everlasting mark on the memory of Death. No one can ever fantasize Death playing such a compassionate and sensitive role the way Zukas did. Or maybe human activity and criminality presented in the novel made him look so decent. In the end, he himself confesses – “I am Haunted By Humans”. Splashing the memoir written by Liesel about her life, Death as an omnipresent narrator, states that the desire to live is so strong in few humans that their existence on earth can never be underestimated. It was something in this little thief that puzzled the narrator (death) every time, making him wonder what it is to live!

Liesel Meminger, an unlettered girl, was brought up by her foster parents, the Hubermanns, at Himmel Street , Germany. She used to have nightmares but had it not been her father (Hans Hubermann), she would have never come across the power of dreaming . The man, the girl, and the books- far away from the choking smell of fires, bombs, and different voices , started inhaling fresh breeze of new beginnings. It was a dream of new life which began at the basement away from the sights of Nazi army.

The novel clearly states how powerless humans are without words. Words made Hitler and brought him in power, words increased his supporters and words showed Liesel as a Divine being . One could only imagine the dreadful plight of Germans at the time of war when they had to rush and hide for the sake of their lives and Liesel ,with the grace of her stories and the power of her words, was successful in grabbing the attention of people hiding in fear, thus proving that words and imagination can bring that peace which the noise of guns and bombs cannot.

When the World War II broke out , the learning of Liesel didn’t stop. The anger and hatred towards the war infused in her the desire to learn more. Her first stolen book was ‘the grave-digger’s diary’ which she got at her brother’s funeral and the process of stealing continued. In fact was elevated more when the Nazis , on the command of Hitler, burnt books to prevent Germans from getting captured by any kind of imagination that would make them dream. The Germans supported Hitler, but there were few who protested him. Liesel and her father were amongst them.

Close to Liesel was Max Vadenburg, a German Jewish, who took shelter in Hubermann’s house during the war. In many ways Liesel and Max were alike. They both have nightmares about their past, both were protected by Hans and both loved books. In fact during his stay at the basement of Hubermann’s house, Liesel reads to Max every night and this gave strength to weak Max to survive in spite of suffering from cold and starvation. Once when air raids and firing made people, including Liesel, hide in different corners, Max, himself hiding in Hubermann’s basement, sneaked out to see stars and open sky . It’s hard for a lamb to live without fear in the kingdom of lion . Max praised God for giving him a wonderful chance to breath in the free air for a while. The fear of Hitler made Jewish live a scared life.

“One was a book thief, the other stole the sky.”

If a book is replete with wonderful sentences , it is often plagiarized. There are many statements in the novel that speaks philosophical truth-

“ 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”
– Death

The work focuses on characters in dark and difficult situations. Liesel brings reading to the residents of Himmel Street and her father Hans Hubermann , an accordionist, symbolized hope and comfort. Rudy, who loved Liesel dearly, wishes to be kissed by her once and Rosa, who played a wicked mother, stopped not Liesel from learning. Though the title refers Liesel alone, there were many thieves involved in the act of book thievery like Max who gave Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” a new look by sketching it odd, the act of burning books by Hitler signified the theft he did by snatching away the chance of reading and Death , in the end, stealing the memoir of Liesel from a trash truck. All these increased the tone of seriousness making the story look dark yet hopeful.

There are many historical and musical references also and the Holocaust and world war II are shown from Liesel’s point of view. The film too captures almost the same scenic beauty presented by the book. No doubt the story started on a melancholy note and ended somewhere setting Liesel and Death together but it leaves readers, like Death, wonder – How books possess the power, the ability to feed the soul? What it is to live?

Ginnie Singh is a scholar from Dhanbad, Jharkhand with her major in English Language and Literature.

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