I’ve been trying to think of how to talk about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief in ways that don’t reduce it to cliché. For example, one could describe it as a novel about the power of stories — to heal, but also to harm. It’s also a book about the violence of war, the dehumanising effects of the ideology underlying Nazi Germany, and the way victims of death and labour camps internalised much of that violence in lasting ways. It’s also about the small acts of humanity that work to counter (but can never erase) all that violence.
What really struck me about Zusak’s novel was the balance it strikes between acknowledging that the German people knew what was happening in the concentration camps and the limitations that at least the very poorest families faced in resisting Nazi violence. Liesl, the eponymous book thief, lives with her family in Moling/Munich right outside Dachau, and their entire street turns out to watch when prisoners are made to march starving into its gates, while the novel’s narrator (Death himself) observes that “Perhaps the death camps were kept secret, but at times people were shown the glory of a labor camp like Dachau” (391). The novel’s implicit point is that labour camps and death camps had different names, but were all part of the same ideological machinery that strips overwhelming numbers of people of their humanity, reducing them to “a herd of cows” (390) (which is what Liesl’s best friend Rudy initially thinks he is seeing in that first march into the camps).
Hans, Liesl’s adopted father, finds himself unable to resist acting out of mercy for one of the prisoners in the march, handing him a piece of bread (394). But the act is an entirely futile one, as the recipient is immediately whipped and returned to the march; Hans too is whipped, and the incident has devastating implications for the Jewish “Struggler” (157), Max Vandenburg, whom Hans and Liesl are hiding in the family’s basement.
The novel does show many of the pressures placed on German families to follow Nazi ideology: the children of anti-Nazi families can taken away and placed in the worst positions on the front lines — and Hans himself faces such a punishment. But it also continually returns the reader to scenes of suffering, to the visceral and individualised anger in Max’s memoirs and the stories he tells and writes for Liesl, and to the mass suffering of crowds like those in the march scene:
Their gaunt faces were stretched with torture. Hunger ate them as they continued forward, some of them watching the ground to avoid the people on the side of the road. Some looked appealingly at those who had come to observe their humiliation, this prelude to their death. Others pleaded for someone, anyone, to step forward and catch them in their arms.
No one did. (391)
While it tries to understand the mentality behind the wartime Germany’s lack of response to the mental and physical violence Nazi machinery inflicted on the Jewish people, the novel refuses to defend inaction, and indeed draws attention to the moments when the inhabitants of Himmel Street refuse to act against that violence. One of the most telling oppositions in the book is that between Hans and the Burgermeister’s wife, Ilsa. Liesl has an increasingly complicated relationship with Ilsa, as she gradually realises the woman who allows her access to an impressive library is married to a Nazi supporter. Liesl grows disappointed with Ilsa’s passivity, and becomes angry that the only family on the street who has power and resources refuse to intervene in the suffering of the Jewish people; the relationship raises questions for her about how people can be both generous to an individual child and yet complicit (by association) in the suffering of millions.
While the content of the book is weighty, the narrative itself, and the characters, are absolutely compelling. It’s a very difficult book to stop reading, being at turns beautiful and funny and horrifically sad. It invites us to feel vulnerably ineffective as we witness again an atrocity in which we are too late to intervene. It also offers a seed of hope, however, that when enough people are present to resist, we can interrupt dehumanising ideology — even if the story simultaneously and repeatedly warns us that numbers and stories can be mobilised by awful people as well as good. The Book Thief is a marvellous and complicated book that leaves one, as Death tells us finally, “haunted by humans” (550).
8 December 2013 ~ Hamilton
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. Illus. Trudy White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.