Friday, November 21, 2014

The Book Thief


Book Review

This is primarily a novel about the Nazi Germany during the Second World War years.  It tells the story of a young girl named Liesel who loses her mother and brother when is she is only 9 years old.  Her brother dies and her mother is taken away by Hitler’s people as she is a communist.  Liesel is handed over to Hans and Rosa Huberman.  She is the titular book thief and the first book is stolen during her brother’s funeral.  Symbolically, the book is A Gravedigger’s Handbook.  Her foster father will teach her how to read and she will steal a few more books eventually.

Hitler’s Nazis burnt books which were seen as opposed to their interests.  The Nazis created their own history, myths and illusions.  Hitler was a powerful orator who hated one particular community of people whom he sent to their death brutally.  Death was ubiquitous in Hitler’s Germany.  No wonder, Death is the narrator of Markus Zusak’s novel.  Hitler towers behind in the background unseen and yet making his presence felt like an undauntedly haunting ghost. 

Hitler knew the power of words and he used it effectively in order to murder millions of Jews as well as to project himself and his beloved Aryan race as the sole rightful inheritors of the earth.   Books too make use of words.  Liesel is in love with the magical worlds created by books.  But Hitler and Liesel are diametrically opposed to each other.  Hitler kills the Jews and Liesel’s foster parents shelter a Jew in their basement and have sympathy for the other Jews.

Zusak succeeds in creating a unique atmosphere in the novel which tells an extremely painful story.  There’s much poetry in the narrative.  There are some literary techniques employed too in order to pin our attention on certain notions which might otherwise escape our attention.

The essentially paradoxical nature of man is well illustrated in the novel.  We come across cruelty and compassion, love and hatred, genuine humanity and fabricated concerns.  Man is a bizarre creature in many ways.  Even Death, the narrator, will admit it.  It is haunted by humans, it says.  Even Hitler who fed on the lives of six million Jews will haunt Death eventually.

The novel grips the imagination with its poignant scenes and magical poetry.  But it can be a bit challenging in many places.  The reader cannot afford to be distracted; otherwise he will miss much.

Living in India at a time when its history faces the threat of being rewritten by a leader whose eloquence is a match for Hitler’s, I found The Book Thief very relevant and enchanting.

PS. The novel was converted into a movie last year.


23 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Hope to get hold of the book soon.

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    1. It is easily available, Indrani, with all the leading online sellers.

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  2. I am reading it currently so skimmed through the post but will come back to read it and then express my take properly ...

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    1. Most welcome, Kokila. My review, however, does not give away any secret that would detract from your interest in reading the book.

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  3. How different and in what way is it different from a regular nazi book?

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    1. It is entirely different from any Nazi book. It is highly critical of Nazism, but in a literary way. It doesn't preach anything. It just presents the Nazi Germany in a particular light which makes the reader feel pity for the victims...

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    2. Totally agree with Tomichan! The Book Thief has death as the narrator, death is not biased...neither to the Jews nor to to the nazis. The treatment of the subject is unique and a must read for everyone.

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  4. Nice review, would be a good read.

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  5. Yet to read the book/watch the movie.
    Looks interesting.

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    1. I stumbled upon the book by chance while searching for something else on the Net. Happy I did. It's a gripping tale told in a "unique" way, as biswadarshan above says.

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  6. Loved the book and your review...Indian history had already been re-written during the late seventies by a female Hitler-like figure!!

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    1. If you are referring to Indira Gandhi, her father described India as a palimpsest. Many conquerors came and erased many histories and wrote new ones. Indira didn't do that really though she had an excruciating self-importance so much so that she describe Indira as India and India as Indira. The Emergency she imposed was arguably the worst period in Indian history because of the suppression of the freedom of thinking and expression. But did she rewrite India's history? I don't think so. What's happening today? BJP is now claiming that the Taj Mahal was a Shiv Mandir! What if it was? Can we remedy anything? We can do researches and find out the roots as honestly as possible. But rewriting is dangerous.

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    2. ... rewriting in the sense of the palimpsest, I mean.

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  7. Well written review. Fabricated concerns and genuine humanity - who can really identify the reality? Its a complex world. And straight forward is not always sweet.
    Jews have been the smartest and most hard working breed. The book "Start up nation" has told the Jewish growth story. On a larger canvas there are two types of human species. The self-obsessed ones and the hard working and intelligent ones. The self obsessed have always tried to suppress the other breed. That's where they use their brains. The hard working and intelligent ones keep creating. Finally what dominates in a society makes up a country.

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    1. Thanks, Ranjana, for highlighting the complexity of the world and the consequent difficulty of being good. If we argue that the Jews deserved what they got from Hitler because they were hard working and smart, we would be degrading ourselves.

      Romila Thapar, historian, suggested that today when she commented about the new govt's attempts to rewrite the history textbooks: she said that the BJP seems to be suffering from some inferiority complex.

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    2. Jews did not deserve what Hitler did to them. The insecure make good people suffer.

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  8. This has been on my bucket list for quite a while now. Will read it soon.

    Thanks for the review, Sir.

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    1. My pleasure, Ashish and wish you happy reading.

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  9. All through the review, I was actually comparing it with my thoughts on the same, having read the book last year. But then this last line... 'Living in India at a time when its history faces the threat of being rewritten by a leader whose eloquence is a match for Hitler’s...' took the focus away from the book. Pointed, loaded and...biased too if I may say so.

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    1. I ordered this book only because of Mr Modi. I was not interested in a novel dealing with Hitler since I thought there could never be another Hitler in human history. But Mr Modi's style of functioning as PM brought back images of Hitler in my mind. I also heard people comparing him to the dictator with unconcealed admiration. Now I hope you understand why the last para in my blog post.

      Regarding bias, I'm not a proponent of the "art for art's sake" school. I'm with Bernard Shaw who believed in the didactic role of literature. All good literature should teach something, not merely possess aesthetic qualities. I looked at the novel from the perspective of a reader who tried to understand Nazism better. Hence the apparent bias. But only "apparent." Because what I want to hear is objective truth for me and what I dislike to hear is the other's bias!

      Thanks for your comment.

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  10. Interesting. Have to pick this one up.

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