The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
I know I am the latest in a very long line of people to say this, or something like it, but here goes: The Book Thief is a monumental yet delicate and extraordinarily beautiful novel. It is the sort of novel that stays with your forever once you’ve read it; the sort of novel that you know you’ll want to read again. (For me, very few novels make it into this category.)
Why is it so amazing? The publisher’s blurb gives almost nothing away: Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall. This sounds intriguing, but conventional. Yet another tale about the Second World War, you might think, made slightly unusual (but not unique) by being told from the point of view of a German child.
Some of the narrative is indeed presented from Liesel’s weltanschauung; the remainder, from the viewpoint of an altogether more shadowy and amorphous character, Death himself (or herself – Zusak is not sexist about this, so we don’t actually find out whether Death has a gender). Strangely, given Liesel’s tragic background (she watches her little brother die during a train journey and shortly afterwards is brutally separated from her mother, her father having already ‘disappeared’) and Death’s status, one of the most striking things about this novel is that every sentence is written with love. Death itself loves his or her victims and reflects ruefully on the absurdities that have put them in his / her way. The far-from-perfect characters are all drawn with love, so that the reader is made to appreciate the best in them: Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s fat, irascible and scatological foster-mother; Frau Holtzapfel, the niggardly neighbour who pays Liesel with increasingly scarce groceries to read to her; Max Vandenburg, the rather cowardly Jewish refugee taken in by the Hubermanns at great personal risk to themselves and the mayor’s wife who owns a large library and whose mind has been permanently impaired by the loss of her son during the First World War – all are drawn by the author with love. The greatest of this authorial love is lavished on Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s playmate and would-be childish boyfriend, and Hans Hubermann, her stepfather. But even Hitler is portrayed with sidelong glints of love.
The author himself seems to be as much a painter as a poet. He writes more emotively about colour than any other writer I’ve encountered. Not only does he assign unexpected colours to things both animate and inanimate, but he seems to attach values to them. Hans Hubermann’s repeatedly described silver eyes are full of sterling worth; black is the colour of incomprehension and confusion; the rights of white to be considered a colour are tenaciously asserted. Colours are even turned into verbs: “The sky was beginning to charcoal.”
Of the many paradoxes that make up The Book Thief, the greatest is that it is an overtly moral tale that neither preaches nor follows an accepted moral code. It achieves this both despite and because of the small moralising paragraphs, always presented in bold, that on one level resemble parodies of the ‘lessons’ in Victorian morality tales, on another set in shorthand the tone of the next scene: “A Portrait of Pfiffikus. He was a delicate frame. He was white hair. He was a black raincoat, brown pants, decomposing shoes, and a mouth – and what a mouth it was.”
The contradictoriness of morality that the book captures throughout is displayed in the title. Liesel is herself the eponymous Book Thief, yet the reader never believes that her theft of eight selected books one by one at longish intervals during her childhood is immoral. In some ways each theft is life-affirming, though ironically the first is of a gravedigger’s manual, stolen for comfort before Liesel is able to read and therefore understand its contents. Hans subsequently teaches her to read by ploughing through this book with her during the long nights when her nightmares drive away sleep, because he refuses to leave her to suffer them on her own: so the act of reading, celebrated throughout the novel as the great life-affirming skill that is also often Liesel’s saviour, grows out of a damp tome of death and a young girl’s horrific sense of loss. Each book that she steals teaches Liesel more about life – not always because of its contents: sometimes it is because of the circumstances in which the book is acquired – so that each theft marks a milestone in the process of her growing-up, her loss of innocence. Finally, she receives as a birthday present a book that has been written especially for her, a hymn to her goodness concealed within an ironical yet harrowing account of the rise and rise of ‘the Fuehrer’.
At the macro level, The Book Thief symbolises the story of a nation trying to make sense of what happened to it and therefore understand how it managed to lose its way. It is a story of the riches that may be found in poverty, the generosity towards others that may yet be found within the hearts of those in extreme danger, the puzzle that is life itself. It also affirms, strongly yet subtly, pervasively yet unobtrusively, that there is nothing, was nothing and never has been anything inherently ‘bad’ in the German race. Germans, then as now, came in all the myriad colours of morality, just like the members of every other race on the earth.
I’d like to offer my very great thanks to Annika for choosing The Book Thief for me.
A film starring both Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman is bound to be worth watching. I therefore decided that I wanted to see The Railway Man without having much idea about what it was about, such being the ‘pull’ of actors who have previously captivated me. I knew that it was neither a violent ‘adventure’ movie nor a romcom, and almost any other genre (except perhaps a Kung Fu feature) would have been OK with me. (Pause for deep sighs from film buffs!)
It was a pretty safe bet that I’d enjoy this film, but I was unprepared for how much I’d be moved by it. It tells the story of a man, Eric Lomax, damaged by his experiences as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese while working on the Burma railway and suffering what is these days called post-traumatic stress disorder. His surviving comrades and fellow captives, like him, now live in the same run-down seaside town in the North East and, also like him, are unable to move on. The focus of their lives is the shabby ex-servicemen’s club which they haunt daily.
So far, so good: the plot is well-constructed and the acting superlative, but there are few surprises. The film appears to follow faithfully in the footsteps of the many stories, both real and fictional, of the brutality of the Japanese during World War II and the permanent psychological damage that they inflicted on those who managed to survive captivity under their jurisdiction. As a child, I knew a number of war veterans who had also been prisoners-of-war. Those who had been captured by the Germans were fairly philosophical about what had befallen them; those who had been held by the Japanese were uniformly vitriolic about their captors and, by association, hated the whole Japanese race and all things Japanese. After the Japanese ‘economic miracle’ had burst upon the world in the 1970s, I had a colleague who would go to any lengths to avoid buying Japanese-made technology.
However, the rather stereotypical scene-setting of The Railway Man that I have described undergoes a sea-change when Colin Firth, now middle-aged, meets Nicole Kidman on a train and falls in love with her (in a rather charming parody, acknowledged in some of her lines, of Brief Encounter). It is only after they have married that she discovers that he still suffers violent nightmares – they are of almost hallucinogenic intensity – about his time on the railway and, particularly, the occasions on which he was brutally tortured; the waterboarding scene is horrifically realistic. From this point on, the film depicts his quest for the mental peace that he must seek in order to make his marriage whole and complete. The actions that he has to undertake to achieve this are drastic – they involve travelling back to the Burma railway twice – and the outcomes are surprising. Risk of spoiling prevents my revealing more, so I’ll just say that, fundamentally, The Railway Man is not so much about the atrocities committed by the Japanese military as about the nature of suffering and guilt, atonement and forgiveness. It is about the strength of the human spirit and the power of love.
There is one other comment that I’d like to add: it concerns the troubling nature of war crimes. Of course, I understand and appreciate why, in the aftermath of World War II, many prosecutions were brought for crimes against humanity. Although there is a grim irony in the concept that there should be ‘rules’ for warfare – and therefore that only some types of killing are acceptable, while torture is inadmissible under any circumstances (though even this basic tenet has been called into question in recent years) – as time goes on, the crucial difference between acts of violence ‘legitimately’ carried out under the rules of warfare and ‘atrocities’ seems to me to become ever more blurred. I’m not referring to the prosecution of those who took part in the death camps (this is a separate issue), but to the pursuit of men who were then very young, no doubt scared, soldiers, who were both acting under orders and caught up in the tumult of war. Most of these men are now nonagenarians or in their late eighties and their accusers likewise. Not only does it seem to me to be impossible to ascertain now exactly what happened then, but I also cannot comprehend how any useful purpose can be served by prosecuting these men seventy years on.
I’m thinking particularly of the man who has recently been arrested for his alleged part in the massacre that took place at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. German soldiers, recalled to Germany towards the end of the war from their postings further south, shot all the men in this French village and then rounded up almost all of the women and children, herded them into the church and set it on fire. Only a handful escaped. I have twice visited the site of this atrocity: the first time was in the 1980s, when my husband and very young son and I stumbled upon it almost by accident as we took a break from a long drive to the Pyrenees. At that time, the village was still deserted, the shattered houses (all were blown up or burned down) and ruined church left exactly as they had been as a memorial to those who died. The rusting, abandoned 1940s vehicles and the many ancient Singer sewing machines set out on the walls told a particularly poignant story. My second visit was much more recent. By then, the place had been ‘sanitised’ and had turned into a tourist attraction. By this process, the horror and sadness of what had happened there had been softened.
Maybe this was a good thing. I’m not suggesting that we should ‘forget’ the war; I think that those ‘historians’ who try to sweep the Holocaust under the carpet by providing ‘evidence’ that it didn’t exist are mendacious exhibitionists at their best and evil propagandists at their worst. But I do question whether any good can come from the prosecution of a man who, seventy years ago, was eighteen years old and may or may not have been directly responsible for some of the civilian deaths at Oradour. Justice comes in many forms. In order to be whole, mankind has to reconcile itself with what happened in the past and carry on with life, knowing what happened and not forgetting it, but drawing a profounder truth from the reconciliation of the demands of memory and the present. This is the ultimate message of The Railway Man. It is one of the most thought-provoking films I have ever seen.