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.