The Book Thief – Death tells a story

There are some visitors we love and welcome, no matter if they drop in at odd times or come unannounced. And there are others we would like to avoid at all costs whether they come with or without an appointment. Death is one such visitor. We even avoid its mention, leave alone like being visited by it. It is macabre and ruthless, even in so called peaceful deaths because of the desolation and devastation it leaves behind.

Death is viewed differently by different religions. In Hinduism, it is believed to be a stage in the journey of the soul, which either gets ultimate salvation or is reborn again. Whether it attains salvation or is reborn depends upon the law of karma, by which the deeds in one’s present life determine a soul’s fate after the death of the body. There is the celestial book-keeper Chitragupta who keeps score of the good and bad karma of a soul and sends it on the next leg of the eternal journey — either to swarga (heaven) or Naraka (hell) — till the account of good and bad are even and the soul attains moksha (salvation and oneness with God).

But no matter what the religious interpretation or view of death, it is still viewed with dread and loathing.

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Which is why Death personified by Markus Zusak in The Book Thief completely fascinated me. He is shown as not only having a heart, but also compassion. So before holding Death responsible for the loss of lives shouldn’t we take a look at humans who are the cause due to their bigotry and a craven need for military and economic supremacy? Death actually gets tired of ferrying human souls in such huge numbers especially from Nazi concentration camps and the battlefields across the globe during WWII. So much so that he is haunted by humans.

In an interview Zusak explains how the character of Death assumed the personality he did in the book. Having decided to tell the story of the Book Thief in the words of Death, he suddenly realised how macabre some of the dialogues sounded.  And that made him change him into a lively Death, to use an oxymoron. At the cost of sounding morbid, I would say that I found the character of Death almost likeable as portrayed in the book.

Just listen to him introduce himself:

  • I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the As. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
  • Even death has a heart.
  • I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.

I love the last statement. Zusak has effortlessly put across a huge philosophical truth. Death indeed is the result – of life. After all, everything that is born has to die sooner or later isn’t it?

Coming to the book, the story is set during WWII at the height of Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews and so there is much death and dying. In fact, it starts with death — of a little boy in the train when he and his sister are on their way to their foster home in Molching, a small town near Munich. That is the first time Death sees Liesel Meminger, the protagonist of the story. Also, it is Death that narrates the story of the book thief.

But if you think it only about death, you couldn’t be more mistaken. It is more about life in all its myriad hues portrayed in such a gentle manner. It is about the young Liesel Meminger, her life in her foster home with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, the love they share despite the hardships, her friendship with Rudy and Max, and of course, a lot of books.

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It is in the tiny foster home on Himmel Street that Liesel discovers the power of words with the help of her Papa, Hubermann — a gentle and compassionate accordionist. It all begins when she wakes up night after night with nightmares of her brother dying and her papa coming in to sit with her and read with her. Liesel learns the words by painting them on the wall of the basement sitting amidst paint tins and dust sheets. Soon the basement becomes her favourite place, for it is there that she finds joy of words and stories, first with her papa and then with Max.

Liesel discovers that words can both destroy and bring back to life. She uses them as a weapon to fight a hidden enemy, to fell the Fuhrer no less. She uses them to calm her terrified neighbours huddled in the basement during the air raids. She employs them to restore normalcy to the life of the distraught Mrs. Hotpafzel who has lost a son in the war. She uses them to bring back to life an almost dead Max, by reading to him day and night. And in the end, it is those very words that save her, as she pens her story – The Book Thief in the basement while the world above her comes to an end. It is this book that Death retrieves from a garbage truck and reads over and over before telling us her story.

The friendship between her and Rudy is beautifully portrayed. It is he who gives her the name Book Thief, for though they both steal food with a gangit is books she loves stealing. For all her fights with him she also loves him, but never gets a chance to tell him how much. Her friendship with Max starts tentatively but is just as deep.

That is all I am going to say about the story.

This is one of those holocaust books for young adults that tells the story of the Germans, both the Nazis and the compassionate ones like Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa, Rudy and the German soldier Walter, who is Max’s childhood friend and helps him hide. While the Jews were hounded, the Germans suffered too, though not in the same way as the former, but their suffering was no less than theirs. Driven by a maniacal leader, spied upon by the Gestapo and being forced to turn against long time neighbours and friends, living under strict rationing of food, it was not easy being compassionate, especially towards the Jews as the consequences of being discovered were terrible.

For the sake of comparison, we can take Anne Frank’s Diary since both have adolescent girls as protagonists. One a Jew in hiding and the other a German in a foster home hiding a Jew — both girls go through the pangs of adolescence and hardships. But that is all about the similarities. Anne Frank’s Diary is a true account narrated by the young girl, while The Book Thief covers a wider canvas chronicling political, economic, social and emotional upheavals of epic proportions.

At another level this is also about the outsiders. Liesel is the daughter of a Communist – the other hated word in Nazi Germany; Hans Hubermann, who refuses to join the Nazi Party, and is abandoned by his son for this reason, is another outsider; Rudy, is anything but a typical Hitler Youth — who tries to feed the marchers on the road to Dachau — could also be called an outsider.

For someone not directly involved in the story, Zusak, an Australian with German parents, has brought alive wartime Germany to the readers. His book has been influenced by the stories he heard from his parents who were children in Germany during the War. Two of the stories he heard from his mother especially moved him — of the Jews being marched through their street to Dachau and of a boy being flogged for giving a piece of bread to one of the marchers. Both incidents find place in the story albeit in different forms. Hans Hubermann is a painter just as Zusak’s father was.

The Book Thief is meant for young adults but still has snatches of horrifying images, though overt ones of death and suffering are not many. But that is something one has to expect in a book about Nazi atrocities and set during WWII. One image remains with me till today as Death muses about the Jews while watching the Germans huddled in a cellar during a raid:

The Germans in the basement were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance. That basement was not a washroom. They were not sent there for a shower.

Over 600 pages and yet not one boring page. It speaks of the mastery of Zusak in telling the most compelling story that I have read this year. I especially loved the way the story goes back and forth, with the outcome of some event disclosed several chapters earlier. It is great for those like me, who find suspense of any kind hard to take 🙂  The characterisation is impeccable, even the minor ones like Rudy’s mother is brought alive through his pen.

I am not sure I would be watching the movie. The images that the book has conjured for me are so deeply etched in my mind, I don’t want to discover any different that might shatter them.

I had finished reading The Book Thief  around the time of the Peshawar school carnage and I couldn’t help wondering what thoughts would have passed through the mind of Death as he carried the souls of the little children in his arms. Yes, he always carries them in his arms — the souls of adults he slings over his shoulders….

Have you read The Book Thief or watched the movie?

Images courtesy: Top- www.wilmlibrary.org Bottom: www.independent.co.uk   Homepage: greenwavegazette.org

30 comments

  1. I have seen the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and also seen the house where Anne Frank lived in Amsterdam. The shadow of death looms larger than life and it is chilling to see the relics preserved! Agree, with the book which sure looks like an interesting read!

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  2. I have not read the book Zephyr.
    When death says death is a result,i think more like it is a result of all our deeds.

    Let me see if this is posted today 🙂

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    1. Yes! Your comment got posted 🙂 As I understood it, what Zusak means is that death is the result of birth because everything that is born has to die sooner than later. I read a lot of young adult fiction and this is one of them.

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  3. “I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.”

    This is my favourite line in the book, Zephyr. Many, many years back I read a story in Chandamama. It was a folk tale, maybe a Vikram-Betal, I’m not too sure, and it had Yama in it. It was about a man who ate only fried food, sweets and liqour. There was a line in the story, when Yama says, “I am a result. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

    I didn’t take to The Book Thief immediately and it took me a while start appreciating it as the magic of the book and the books within started to make its presence felt. and by the time the books finished, I was in love with the books and the characters and of course, the Narrator.

    What a beautiful review. I think you should do more of them. 🙂

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    1. Wow! you remember a quote from Chandamama story which you read as a kid! *respect* That is the reason why I can never ever become good reviewer of books. I can’t for the life of me remember quotes and passages as a lot of people seem to do 😦 The Book Thief indeed takes a while to grip our imagination, but one only had to read a few pages before it happens and how! You don’t even realise that you have got immersed in the story deeply. And then it is hard to put it down. This was one book which I had decided I would write about, if not as a review, at least as something that affected me too deeply. Great to know you share my ‘love’ for Death as shown in the book 🙂

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  4. I read the book about a year back. I have also watched the movie since. The book is indeed moving. Yes, you do feel for Death after reading the book. The interactions between Max and Liesel are some of the best parts of the book. And of course, between Liesel and Rudy.

    The movie is quite faithful to the book with some terrific acting by Geoffery Rush and Sophie Nelisse.

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    1. You said it, Pkayen. We end up feeling for Death and his unenviable job. It is not often that a movie adaptation is true to the book. But somehow I am unable to bring myself to watch movies in this genre. The only exception was Life is Beautiful and that too only because it had a child in the movie and it was so well made with little explicit gore.

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  5. Found In Folsom · · Reply

    You and me have a special fondness for holocaust books. For some reason, I never finished ‘The Dairy of Anne Frank’. But this is such a wonderful book. I totally totally fell in love with it. It took me a few pages to understand the narrator was death. Slow Me! I don’t have much to add to your wonderful post, BM. You said it all and your thoughts so resonate with me. I loved the way how death speaks throughout…in each phase..in each character..the girl, the dad, Rudy, Max..everyone. I could literally visualise the scenes. I was planning on watching the movie with Rushi this wknd, but I am thinking…let us see.

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    1. I had misgivings about the book in the first few pages and thought it might become boring but the tempo only picked up, never slackened. And I also loved the way each chapter was introduced, with a few key words which were then expanded. I found the lack of chapter numbers a bit disorienting, but soon nothing mattered but the story. Tell me how you compared the movie with the book, not that I will be watching it. I never ever watch holocaust movies. Somehow the visual images would be too much for me to take 😦

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  6. Found In Folsom · · Reply

    I read it….it is exactly how I thought you would write 🙂

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    1. This is not a comment 😛

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      1. Found In Folsom · · Reply

        NO….that was only to let you know that I read it. 🙂

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  7. Nope, not read or seen the movie…

    But Death I have experienced a lot, But the biggest truth and that which will never change is that DEATH is Truth, we all got to face it someday. Although we celebrate each year our birthday but in reality Each day we are nearing that D day 🙂

    and sadly this is something we cant change. maybe we are all living a life that is being dictated by death..

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    1. Death indeed is the biggest truth and is the only certain thing in this life. But the way it has been portrayed in the book, it is more compassionate than humans. Which is what the author had been thinking when he made Death tell the story. The moment we are born we are inexorably getting closer to death. I know about your experiences with death – of near and dear ones and even a lot of strangers during the course of your stay in India.

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      1. Mami that is so true.. death is indeed more compassionate than humans..mankind in itself has become in human..but death does not have any such reservations it treats everyone equal.. no in – equality in terms of race creed gender color..All are same..

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        1. That point is also very well brought out in the book, Bikram. As Death shuttles between the killing fields and the gas chambers, it sighs and laments over the human beings being so cruel.

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  8. What a great review, Zephyr! Death as the narrator is an interesting and probably very effective idea.

    I have neither read the book nor watched the movie yet. I’m not really sure that I want too. these type of books seem to sadden and frustrate me more and more nowadays.

    It seems that no lessons are learnt from history, and we humans will keep on making the same mistakes and again and again…..

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    1. As I have mentioned in the review, though Death is the narrator, there is a lot about life in all its aspects, which takes off some of the weight of the subject. The story is so well told that there are just snatches of actual images of horror. And yes, we never learn from past mistakes, which is why we say, ‘History repeats itself’.

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  9. Nope…haven’t read the book. But your post does make it a ‘must read’ !
    Thanks for your beautiful review Zephyr.

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    1. Hey, I think to call this a review would be a misnomer. Just shared some thoughts after reading it 🙂 But it is a great book and worth every page. It starts off a little slowly but after a while, you don’t feel like putting it down. Go ahead and get it!

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  10. Ohhhhhh I loved this, Zephyr! Having just read The Book Thief (which you already knew), I totally agree with your observations about Death as a narrator. Zusak excelled at making Death sympathetic and compassionate, which is so unlike what many of us picture death to be. I also liked your analysis of how death is perceived or represented in other cultures, and the one similarity they all share regardless.

    You mentioned the attack at the school in Peshawar. That was a beautiful inclusion. I remember hearing about that but didn’t think of it when I was reading The Book Thief. Thinking about those poor children (and the adults, too) reminds me of the pain I felt when I heard about the Sandy Hook school shooting a couple years ago. I started crying when they confirmed it happened in an elementary school… I hope that Death brought peace and comfort to the victims of both shootings.

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    1. Thank you for the visit and the comment, Sara! The school massacre was in my mind all through the review and I added it at the end. Really, as Zusak observes in the words of Death, it is us humans that are to be loathed, feared and shunned and not death because after all, it is just a result of our madness to kill and exterminate. For someone so young and not directly connected to the holocaust or the War, Zusak has brought so much insight into the book and made it palatable for young readers. This is on the top of my favourite YA books.

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      1. You’re welcome! And that’s very true, we humans should be more afraid of ourselves and the damage we do to one another than dying. It’s a very wise point that Zusak makes in that story, and probably one of the (many) reasons why The Book Thief appeals to readers of all ages.

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        1. We do indeed do more damage to our race than death can ever do, don’t we? I think if we all remember that we are just one race — human beings — we would stop killing and maiming each other. But no, we have to divide and divide some more and then persecute each other 😦

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  11. I watched the movie some time back. It is actually quite nicely done. But of course it leaves you with that strange kind of sadness afterwards, when you don’t want to say anything about the movie. The whole idea of having Death as the narrator in the film (and also the book as you note) is so powerful. Though as the story unfolds, for sometime Life takes the center-stage and you forget that it all started with Death at the beginning and may end with it too. The result. It was this aspect of the film that I found very interesting. Thanks for sharing some of the gems from the book, reading or watching a film about something like Holocaust can be very difficult. It is for me. I find the last line of your post so touching, about Death carrying children in its arms. What imagery!

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    1. Somehow a book of this magnitude needs to be read to absorb all the nuances of the story. At least it is, to me. No matter how well a movie is made, it is still seen through the eyes of the filmmaker and not yours. Which is why I prefer the written form of such stories. This one is magnificently written by one so young and one who has not been directly involved in any way with the times. It speaks volumes about his sensitivity. I have read many holocaust books for young adults and they have all had a strong positive thread running through them, to underline the ghastliness of mindless death when such positivity is there for the taking. But as you say, it leaves a very lingering sense of sadness and frustration after reading them. I have not watched any movie in this genre on purpose because I won’t be able to take it, frankly.

      And the last line talking of Death carrying the little souls is from the book, when death tells the readers how he takes the souls. There are so many such lines that I’d have been sued for copyright infringement if I had quoted more! But the thought of those children kept pushing itself into my head all the time I wrote the post.

      I had written another post on Children and the holocaust in which I had listed some of the books in this genre. Maybe you’d like to read it? https://cybernag.in/2013/06/20/children-and-the-holocaust-2/

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      1. I agree, movie and book are totally different experiences. I have read a few holocaust related books and seen some movies too. In fact I once took a class on genocide in 20th century, and found it very difficult to go through the whole experience of reading, watching films, and discussing, analysing. Had to drop the class in the middle of the semester – the only course I didn’t finish in my entire academic career.
        I will check out the other post you mention here, thanks for the link.

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        1. Oh, that must have been such a painful thing — to read, watch and then take a class on something so awful as genocide. I am not able to take any visual representation of such horror, which is why I have not seen a single movie of that genre. But in children’s books the whole subject is dealt with so sensitively that one can read them without feeling the horror. Some of them are really very good.

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  12. Have not read the book but seems to be a lovely read.

    The one thing about Humanity that I fail to fathom is how we can so easily be misled by an adherence to an abstract concept as to find atrocities against individuals not merely palatable but righteous. A perceived slight to a Religion makes it your God-given duty to beat/kill individuals; Maintaining the purity of your Race makes genocide your religious duty. God save me from the self-righteous!

    If only we could achieve such transports of dutifulness in ameliorating the lot of our fellow-men!

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    1. The Book Thief is actually meant for young adults, a genre I love, but it can be read by people of all ages. The book is not just about the genocide of Jews, but also about Germans and the War that killed so many. And Death being appalled by humans is brought out in more than a dozen places. After all, it was only doing its duty of collecting souls! You are right. The upholding of an abstract principle effortlessly turns men into madmen. At the moment I am reading The Source, a historical fiction by James Michener, where the history of semitic religions is traced. Though technically fiction, it is a well researched book as only Michener’s books can be and is a revelation about the origins of those religions.

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