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Author Topic: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak  (Read 3610 times)
Geoff_N
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« on: October 29, 2008, 06:25:32 PM »

This may not be horror enough for some here, but the protagonist is Death, the setting is Munich during the war - so horror it is and yet it is magically written. This is one of those books I was obliged to read to participate in a real local Book Group. Like other books, I'm glad I was made to read it.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is my favourite book I’ve read this year. This is both because of the beauty of the writing and the brave powerful subject matter: portraying Nazi Germany through the experience of non-Jewish, non-Nazi humanitarians.

Some reviews of The Book Thief focus on the Jewish humour references. I had a different take on the humour. I found the humour more generic German as I would have expected since neither Death, Zusak nor Liesel were Jews. While it is true that Jewish humour is distinctive in its use to face adversity, so is the humour by many folk in similar circumstances. I was born in Germany when my dad and mum went there as British Army just after the war. I have a good memory of seeing bombed Osnabruck; people with no ears; a man wailing in the street who'd spent 6 years walking Germany looking for his wife and child. My dad, who'd learnt German, persuaded the man to come in, have a bath and a feed, change of clothes, money. The man couldn't understand why the enemy would do this. The human wreckage of war is so despicable. The man had been in a concentration camp because he was a communist. I was the only Brit in the kindergarten. I soon learnt what a great sense of humour the Germans had in spite of the assumption they have none. Many of the kids were orphans. I don't know if any were Jewish - I was only 4 then, and 5 when I left to live in the UK. My dad befriended many Germans including gypsies who'd lost most of their kind to the gas chambers, and I met some of my dad's friends back in Osnabruck a few years ago.  So I grew up knowing that the horrors suffered by Jews were experienced by others too. Even many ordinary Germans lived in fear of the hard line Brown shirts and the SS. When I was old enough to ask, my dad explained that most of the German people were convinced in the late 1930s that they were about to be attacked by the countries that surrounded them. Hitler persuaded them that they were about to be annihilated and so lose their identity. Under pressure some knew about the concentration camps but most were in denial. They were punished if they asked about them. I think Zusak does a great job conveying the angst and hardship of ordinary Germans and the risks taken by many who'd like Hans and Rosa, hid Jews - and others - from the authorities. I felt the humour in the book was not so much Jewish but of people in struggle anywhere who fought for their sanity and humanity.
 
I go to Amsterdam now and then and sometimes take my daughter who although dyslexic, reads everything Anne Frank. I can't help making the comparisons & contrasts between the Jewish girl Anne Frank and the non-Jewish Liesel - in some ways The Book Thief is the inverse of Anne Franks diary.

It seems to me that Zusak is holding up two fingers to some novel conventions. The omniscient narrator isn’t God but Death – and in first person, which makes it immediate and personal. Zusak seems to dislike surprises and so Death often slips into the future and spills little endings. I find that amusing but ruins the tension I want.
 
. I am unable to refrain to quote some of the wonderful phrases I wish I'd written such as:
The church aimed itself at the sky
The excitement stood up in her
a one-syllable laugh
her whole death now lay in front of her
cooked eggs on the brink of burndom
 
I write each as I encounter them. Interesting that most are in the first third of the book. I wonder why? Was the rest rushed because some of the middle seems like it. Some of the phrases are too purple and raise an amateur flag - eg 'A dressing gown opened the door'. A few editing blunders too such as the use of further when they should be farther. None spoiled the overall literary excellence.
 
I can't help feeling that the narrator isn't really Death - even though Death is also the reader. In some ways it feels Death is an authorial joke, where omniscient = God, but let's make it the Grim Reaper. Certainly Death has the same humour as Mort in Pratchett's Discworld even to the attitude over the stupidity and control of humans and their wars being a kind of master over him.
 
I found the Book Thief compelling reading mainly because of the phrases and the clever atmosphere; the pathos and enlightenment. Rarely does a book simultaneously make me simultaneously laugh and cry like this one.

Geoff
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JonP
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« Reply #1 on: October 29, 2008, 08:23:34 PM »

I was given "I Am the Messenger" by Zusak by my daughter for my birthday last year, and I really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to "The Book Thief". I must say that at first I was disappointed and almost irritated by the arch style of writing, but by about halfway through I realised that I'd stopped being irritated, and in the end I thought it was absolutely wonderful.
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Ed
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« Reply #2 on: October 30, 2008, 04:25:28 AM »

Sorry for being so thick, but what do you mean by 'arch style of writing'? I haven't heard the expression before. (Well, I might have, but my brain is addled huh )
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Planning is an unnatural process - it is much more fun to do something.  The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression. [Sir John Harvey-Jones]
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« Reply #3 on: October 30, 2008, 04:32:40 AM »

I'm wondering about arch style  too.

I heard that Messenger is sometimes preferred as it has more humour and action?

Geoff
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JonP
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« Reply #4 on: October 30, 2008, 04:54:36 AM »

Just had to check there - thought I'd misused a word. According to Wiktionary, arch as an adjective means "knowing" or "clever", and I'd add "generally in a pejorative sense".
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Geoff_N
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« Reply #5 on: October 30, 2008, 08:03:59 AM »

Do you mean then those short asides where Death slips ahead and tells us what is going to happen, who will die so don't get too attached? As I mention in my review I think it is Zusak's snoot at writing convention there - but it means the tension and surprises are considerably reduced. A mistake in my view. Nevertheless the book is very much worth the read.

Geoff
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« Reply #6 on: October 30, 2008, 08:49:43 AM »

Yes, that's the kind of thing - at first it smacked of self-indulgence. But as I say, it ceased to bother me after a while, and I think I began to appreciate what he was up to. I'm glad I stuck with it.
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