Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Book about Words (THE BOOK THIEF - Markus Zusak (Australian) 2007))


"The force which has ever and always set in motion great historical avalanches of religious and political movements is the magic power of the spoken word ." "It is only through the capacity for passionate  feeling that chosen leaders can wield the power of the word which, like hammer blows, will open the door to the hearts of the people."

Mein Kampf 
Adolf Hitler

I read the introductory portions of Mein Kampf several years ago mainly out of curiosity, but also in an effort to understand Hitler and his role in history. He was no dummy, and his climb to leadership involved no luck or happenstance.   Hitler understood, long before his rise to leader of the Third Reich, that words, in conjunction with passion, can change the course of history.  Certainly no one can deny the power of his spoken words in affecting 20th century events.
Friends have asked me what the book is about.  I suggest it's The diary of Ann Frank as narrated by Kurt Vonnegut.  (OK, so I've already linked Kurt Vonnegut to Stephens Hawkins, but I seem to have Kurt on the brain lately.)  The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak , like Slaughterhouse 5, is an antiwar novel in that it strips all nationalistic glory and higher purpose from the battlefield; though that is not why I throw in the Vonnegut comparison.  The similarity is in the use of an abstract narrator to tell the story of the protagonist and supporting characters, and to address the horrors of Nazi Germany through these characters (military characters in Vonnegut's case and civilian characters in Zusak's novel.)  I will say that Zusak's novel is not nearly so off the wall as Vonnegut's writings, and and focuses on Nazi Germany rather than nationalistic wars in general.  In the end, however, it was a pure pleasure to read.
Woven within this wonderfully written story of a young girl in WWII Germany is an exploration of the ability of words to cause great destruction in the world, as well as imbue peace and hope in individuals.  The narrator of the entire book, Death, is at different points sanguine, sarcastic, sad, and funny.  He takes "souls" and speaks of "God" but from a more or less agnostic position.  He complains of how much work there is to be done during the war, and wishes he had a vacation, but alas, there is no one to replace him.  His concluding words end the book:  "I am haunted by humans."
A "discussion points" appendix was present in my book, but I was not impressed by the questions it suggested for discussion.  From a book club position, I think an analysis of the literary style would be as germane as a discussion of the plot and narrative details.  Zusak is a real wordsmith.

Is it a sad book?  Clearly.  Is it a happy book?  Most certainly.  Should you read it . . . definitely!