The Book Thief (Review)

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Issue 4, January 2007

Kurt Vonnegut and Marcus Zasuk have a few things in common. First, each is drawn to the unique misery of war, and both men have written books set in Germany during World War II. They are also both given to expressing their ponderings with whimsy, as so the great convergence of the small and the large in war is reduced to a mood, the grandeur of the thing intellectually glossed over. But this tendency in the authors is not so bad, given that both men are humanitarians, and given the firm intention of this book, which is  to suggest that words and stories confer great strength, warmth and wisdom to human beings.

The book thief is nine-year-old Liesel Meminger, a German Lutheran and this book’s heroine, who becomes sad witness to Hitler’s designs. Her father is taken away for communism, her mother disappears, and it is at the burial of her younger brother that the narrator meets our hero. The narrator is Death. He writes: “I travelled the globe… handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity. I warned myself that I should keep a good distance from the burial of Liesel Meminger’s brother. I did not heed my advice”.

At the burial Leisel spies an unlikely source of comfort. A book entitled The Grave Digger’s Handbook and it registers the book’s casual loftiness—Vonnegut’s near-trademarked gallows humour—and it also establishes the book’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s famous line: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. As Leisel adventures through this cruel vortex, aided by the sweet distraction of stolen books, we see Didion’s words re-arranging themselves: we are the stories that we tell ourselves.

Leisel’s specific form of kleptomania does not only bring her closer to words, but pulls her farther away from the Nazis. Her acts of theft in war-riddled Germany are small but important acts of defiance, and Leisel emerges as something of a moral heavyweight, something made all the more important by her ignorance of such things.

The books Leisel gathers (from a Nazi book-burning, for instance, or from the mayor’s wife) restores a sense of balance to her, and soon her levels of absorption are such that the Nazis are made to symbolically vanish, a feat that makes even Death proud.

Zusak is smart enough to recognise the harm words can inflict also—at one stage Leisel picks up Mein Kampf, and we cast our minds back to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Goebbels, and the skill at which he used words to excite the passions of the ignorant.

All this said, there is little intellectual scope in this novel , but that may very well be Zusak’s intention. Instead, there is a reliance on aphorism (“So much good, so much evil,” Death muses. “Just add water”), which is overly clever, or cute, an irritant exacerbated by Death’s pithy interruptions (“Even Death has a heart”).

This book is being sold as a young-adult novel in America, which seems about right to me. As Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “The Book Thief… is filled with librarian appeal. It deplores human misery. It celebrates the power of language. It may encourage adolescents to read. It has an element of the fanciful. And it’s a book that bestows a self-congratulatory glow upon anyone willing to grapple with it”.

There is a difference between Zusak and Vonnegut, and it is that the younger writer has not given up on so many things as Vonnegut who fought in the war both men wrote about. However, it is no bad thing to suffer from less misanthropy than the man who gave us Slaughterhouse 5. It is also no bad thing to stare at the stars and to reflect on misery and the value of words.