My Leonardtown Library Discussion Group discussed Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief last night. I was enthralled with the novel and noted similarities with another book we discussed recently, Nicole Krauss’ History of Love. Both authors invent books within their books that radically alter people’s lives. My post today focuses on Zusak’s imagined books.
Liesel is a young girl who is raised as a foster child in Nazi Germany. At a very young age she loses her parents, probably because they are communists, and sees her little brother die. She is raised by a poor couple who unexpectedly find themselves hiding a Jew named Max. Because her foster family has no money, Liesel grabs books where she can. They include:
–The Grave Digger’s Handbook (picked up from her brother’s graveyard);
–The Shoulder Shrug (salvaged from a Nazi book burning);
–The Whistler and The Dream Carrier (stolen from the library of Ilsa, the mayor’s wife);
–a dictionary (given to her by Ilsa).
–The Word Shaker (a book created by Max on painted-over pages of Mein Kampf).
Although these books appear to be acquired haphazardly, I believe that the books we need find their way into our lives. When we are scanning library or bookstore shelves, we sometimes instinctively select exactly the books we need. So it happens with Liesel:
–She learns to read from the Grave Diggers’ Handbook, and even though it is a manual, it gives her a framework for processing her brother’s death. This is where she first senses that words can touch on life’s most momentous events.
–The Shoulder Shrug is described as follows:
The authorities’ problem with the book was obvious. The protagonist was a Jew, and he was presented in a positive light. Unforgivable. He was a rich man who was tired of letting life pass him by—what he referred to as the shrugging of the shoulders to the problems and pleasures of a person’s time on earth.
The book lets Liesel know that there are deliberate ways to live a life that is all too fragile and evanescent.
–The Whistler is a crime novel about a mass murderer who always whistles after he kills someone and who, in the book’s conclusion, is eyeing his next victim. (I wonder if Zusak got the idea from the Fritz Lang movie M.) Grim though the book is, it gives Liesel a narrative that articulates the horrors going on around her.
–The Dream Carrier begins as follows:
It was quite fitting that the entire town was sleeping when the dream carrier was born…
Liesel, one of the few in her town to survive the war, becomes a dream carrier. The narrator, who happens to be Death, informs us that the book we are reading is based on her own account of her life.
–Liesel uses the dictionary to break the special code of books and sometimes of adult language generally. Language is so visceral for Liesel that the dictionary becomes an indispensable guide, helping to open up further language’s magical powers.
–Max’s parable The Word Shaker, however, points to a paradox that will shake Liesel to the core. Language, while liberating, can also be abused by a charismatic tyrant. Indeed, when all hell is breaking loose in Liesel’s world, she turns against language and destroys a book:
Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better.
Max’s story, however, which is written over the text of Mein Kampf, gives her another way to see language. Here’s an excerpt from The Word Shaker:
Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “ I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.
He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.
He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany…It was a nation of farmed thoughts.
While the words were growing, our young Fuhrer also planted symbols, and these, too, were well on their way to full bloom. Now the time had come. The Fuhrer was ready.
He invited his people toward his own glorious heart, beckoning them with his finest, ugliest words, handpicked from his forests. And the people came.
They were all placed on a conveyor belt and run through a rampant machine that gave them a lifetime in ten minutes. Words were fed into them. Time disappeared and they now knew everything they needed to know. They were hypnotized.
Also in Max’s story, however, are “word shakers,” who climb the trees and shake down words to the people below. Among these is a little girl who is particularly attuned to words:
The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her regions because she knew how powerless a person could be without words.
That’s why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.
One day, however, she met a man who was despised by her homeland, even though he was born in it. They became good friends, and when the man was sick, the word shaker allowed a single teardrop to fall on his face. The tear was made of friendship—a single word—and it dried and became a seed, and when next the girl was in the forest, she planted that seed among the other trees. She watered it every day.
The seed grows into the mightiest tree in the forest. The Fuhrer is unable to chop it down.
Ilsa, the mayor’s wife, also appreciates Liesel’s deep hunger for words and for books, especially after she receives the following letter from her:
Dear Mrs. Hermann,
As you can see, I have been in your library again and I have ruined one of your books. I was just so angry and afraid and I wanted to kill the words. I have stolen from you and now I’ve wrecked your property. I’m sorry. To punish myself, I think I will stop coming here. Or is it punishment at all? I love this place and hate it, because it is full of words
You have been a friend to me even though I hurt you, even though I have been insufferable (a word I looked up in your dictionary), and I think I will leave you alone now. I’m sorry for everything.
Ilsa, however, will not allow Liesel to punish herself but brings her a notebook. In it, Liesel pens her story, entitling it The Book Thief.
The book that Liesel writes concludes,
I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.
One other note: In addition to loving the hunger for books that is at the heart of Zusak’s novel, I was drawn to it by a personal connection. Liesel lives in a small town outside Munich and close to Dachau. My father, who died last year, was in Munich during the war and saw Dachau three days after it was liberated. The novel mentions Americans guarding Dachau, and although my father wasn’t one of these, he did have the job of educating Munich citizens about the concentration camps. He told me that the Germans initially labeled the horror stories as American propaganda, prompting the Americans to set up mandatory tours of the camp.