It’s not every day I get to meet a book narrated by Death. I have high respect of the matter and I hardly take it lightly. I ask myself, if Death was to write, what will he write about?
The Book Thief will answer that question.
Liesel Meminger watched her six-year-old brother die on a train enroute to their foster home. Together with her mother, she will bury him in the snow covered forest of Germany. In this fateful day, our heroine will steal her first book, thus the title and Death’s fascination towards her. This will also haunt her dreams by seeing her brother’s dead eyes staring blankly on the floor and her mother leaving her to strangers for good.
Yet life will be a little kinder to young Liesel. Rosa and Hans Hubberman who lives in a small house on a street aptly named Himmel (or Heaven in English) will find every way possible for this to happen. Her foster father is a house painter by trade and plays the accordion at a local pub for a few pennies. He will teach her how to read and comforts her when she is visited by her customary nightmare. Her foster mother, who washes clothes for the richer people of her neighborhood, shows her love in a very peculiar way. Her terms of endearment to her foster daughter and husband are either Saumensch or Saukerl (Pig or Bastard).
Leisel will also meet her future best friend in Himmel Street. Mostly known to be a little odd and a daredevil, Rudy is a sweet young boy who wants to be just like his sprinter idol, Jesse Owens. He will also be pestering young Liesel with a kiss that she will never give – save for the last time she sees him.
But misery will seep into the house of her foster parents and in every crevice of her dilapidated neighborhood. It will come in two forms, Hitler and a Jew they needed to protect named Max.
In The Book Thief, Death speaks with sensibility and not with swagger like we think he does. He is neither frightening nor a fiend. He is just like any other worker who needs to get the job done. And in the years of the Holocaust he has so much to do with so little time. For someone busting at the seams with work, you will have a story to tell. So with numerous events happening, Death gathered stories while collecting souls and the thoughts that emanate in his vast intelligence is both poetic and morose.
Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me… It suffices to say, that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms… I will carry you gently away.
The narrative paces nonchalantly, a metaphor shared by humans as we journey life. But as soon as Death steps in the room, a quiet horror builds … things quicken. The story describes even the weather with graceful accounts and every character is drawn with astute prose. After everything is described through the eyes of Death, we begin the heart of the story rightfully in the middle.
The book captivates because its theme, both universal and absolute, speaks in the voice of someone who is forced to watch but not to suffer. We’ve always been fascinated by death and here Death comes to being by narrating his accounts of brutality, war and dying. His voice is eloquent and thoughtful. He starts off by building the story describing colors, places and faces that he encounters while at work. It moves steadily and somehow jolts you with notes that he maintains by writting them in bold and putting asterisks in them. He ponders deeply which creates a gripping culmination of events.
Death’s chosen protagonist, Liesel, is a fascinating little girl with a tearful life. With her challenges, she learns to defy this by following her heart and holding on to her foster parents (especially her father). To some extent, she becomes difficult to understand and her kindness becomes foolish at times. But she rises to every occasion; justifying her compassion.
The irony of Death’s existence is bursting in The Book Thief; like how we haunt ourselves with the thought of him and how Death is haunted by the thought of us.
Now I know what Death will write about in case he ever does; Death will write about life.
The Book Thief
Written by Australian Novelsit, Markus Zusak
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York