e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Re-reading ‘The Book Thief’

I first read Markus Zusak’s novel over a year ago. I enjoyed it all – just as well as it’s a long book. I noted that he has an interesting and unusual use of language, but at the time I was wrapped up in the story and didn’t pay much attention.

This time round, I read slower and took in the turns of phrase and descriptions. The author pushes out the envelope of meaning big time:

… the soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying onto the floor like powder.

… a voice stooped out and ambled towards the sergeant. It sat at his feet …

I know at least one person who doesn’t like these descriptions: she considers them incorrect and distracting. I can see her point, but in the story world of this book they seem to me to be natural. In other worlds a simile like ‘… the room that stretched like a bridge …’ might sound really daft.

One reason all sorts of dislocations, including forays into the thoughts of minor characters and sidesteps in time and space, are acceptable is that the narrator is Death. I doubt if many authors have managed to create such a valuable narrator. He can have almost any characteristic the author wants him to have. He can read thoughts and knows what’s happening far away and in the future

Death, according to Markus Zusak, is not an impersonal force: he has a heart, gets tired, suffers boredom and tries to carry the souls away gently. On a battlefield he can be ‘…unnerved, untied and undone.’ He has a very idiosyncratic take on war

… to me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible.

Creating him has given Zusak the best of all possible worlds, narrator-wise. He’s an omniscient, first person observer. He addresses the reader cosily:

We should deal with all of that first, don’t you think?
It’s settled then
We will.

and explains how he’s going to forward the story:

I have Liesel Meminger in one hand, Max Vandenburg in the other. Soon I will clap them together. Just give me a few more pages.

As a literary device he’s brilliant. As a character he’s likeable and reasonable – this is how death could be if it were a person.

I very rarely read the same book twice, but for this one I’m glad I did. Beside the main items of story and character, it has other features to be savoured.

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4 thoughts on “Re-reading ‘The Book Thief’

  1. I relished the phrase, “The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying onto the floor like powder.” Powerful description. You can “see” the concept Mr. Zusak is trying to convey.

    Thank you. Literature is good for the spirit.

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  2. Haven’t read this book yet, but your description of Death reminds me of a vision I had whilst listening to the final movement of the final string quartet of Beethoven – the “Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!” bit. The music to me vividly depicts Death coming for yet another appointment, only to discover that his “client” this time ’round is Beethoven himself. Listening the music, I could vividly see Death aghast – Must it be? Must I take Him!? Beethoven then consoles poor Death, saying It must be, it must be. He puts him arm around Death and together they manage to take that final walk to the hereafter.

    Sorry for the tangent, but what you wrote brought this forgotten memory blazing back from dead!

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    • Your vision is fascinating and so fitting – the Death figure Zusak creates is very like the one you envisaged. If you ever read The Book Thief, I think you’ll like it as you’ve already had some similar insights as the author. Thank you for your comment.

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