Despite the narration by Death, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief is eminently readable. I object less to his narration the further I read because perhaps it’s because I begin to forget he’s narrating until he mentions it. I don’t mind the presence of a third-person omniscient narrator; in fact, I really like it (see Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being as an example) as long as that narrator isn’t established as a character in his or her own right. The opening chapter of The Book Thief begins with Death introducing himself.
* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
You are going to die.
The whole thing strikes me as precious. Death is not a person who can change with a character arc. And this is the concept of Death, not Neil Gaiman’s cute goth Death. I find the premise inherently flawed. Why does the omnipotent, omniscient Death choose to relate to us Liesel Meminger’s story? Thankfully this sort of ingratiating and obsequious narration doesn’t last and after it’s irritating beginning, the story unfolds with increasingly compelling momentum. And it’s quite good. I’ve sobbed twice already and I’m only about halfway done.
I can already tell this book is going to be hard to read for me emotionally. It’s Nazi Germany for crying out loud, of course it’s going to be hard. I’ve only read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, and Ruth Sender Minksy’s The Cage once each because I find the subject matter too horrible to read about. Fortunately The Book Thief is about the power of reading, of understanding what letters and shapes mean, and the joy it brings. There are many books that discuss the power of reading and the subject of censorship set against a dystopian future (like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) but The Book Thief is set in a dystopian past. It’s good. It really is. Just difficult.
The other reason I find this book hard to read is its self-conscious pretension. I’m sorry, Mr. Zusak, but your virtuosity is showing. Often I don’t mind this. I enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated despite what other people thought about its self-importance. While I find myself aware of Foer’s precocity, it ultimately doesn’t detract from the storytelling. On the other hand, I keep getting jerked out of the narrative with Zusak’s Death constantly chiming in with a quip here or there, or to alert us of what’s to come, or with his side remarks textually highlighted with centered font, asterisks, and bold face.
I wish he wouldn’t do that. The story is good on its own; there is no need to fancy it up with bells and whistles. Zusak’s got some one-liner doozies in there that just pack a punch to the gut, but it isn’t necessarily to have Death be the one saying them. An omniscient narrator is fine. Why, why does it have to be Death?
In particular, the way Zusak writes about childhood love makes me ache.
“Saukerl [an insult],” she laughed, and as she held up her hand, she knew completely that he was simultaneously calling her a Saumensch. I think that’s as close to love as eleven-year-olds get.
Oof. Brilliance. (Also, I adore Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend, to PIECES.) I know you’re good, Mr. Zusak. You don’t have to shove it in my face.
This book will probably haunt me for a good long while after I’m done like M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing, but I think Mr. Anderson is the better craftsman. Both of these books were lauded up the yin-yang and for good reason, but I shall reserve my final judgment until I’m done reading The Book Thief.
Speaking of novels, a list of Wikipedia articles to aid in the writing of my novel.
- Parliament of the United Kingdom
- House of Lords
- House of Commons
- Government minister
- Foreign secretary
- Meiji Restoration
- Meiji Constitution
- Government of Meiji Japan
- Imperial Japan/Nihon Teikoku
- Mono no aware
- Lacrimae rerum
- Diet of Japan
- Empress Myeongseon of Korea
- Gyeongseong/Keijo (a.k.a. Hanseong)
- Five Eulsa Traitors
- Japan-Korea Annexation Treat
- Korea under Japanese rule
- Lee Wan-Yong
Oops, I think I got a little carried away there. All this for a short scene in my novel in which formal introductions are made at a party which include a knighted member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a mysterious and alluring female Nipponese ambassador, their illegitimate daughter, and her guardian, the daughter of a deceased Lord of Parliament. Maybe I should have majored in history.
Political intrigue. I love it. It’s what keeps me reading in many novels.
I suppose my chosen articles are of a slightly more personal nature as my own family history on my mother’s side is closely involved with Korean-Japanese relations. Because my great-grandfather was Pro-Japanese during the annexation, he was wealthy, titled, and then ultimately killed, causing my grandparents to flee Pyongyang. I find this fascinating but I don’t know the details. Perhaps I ought to ask my grandmother, but I feel this is a sensitive topic. Not to mention my Korean language skills are limited to simple conversations.
Also, I find these articles a little frightening. I stumbled on the website when I tried to find if I could find my family name among the 708 “traitors.” I gave up because there are some scarily patriotic Koreans out there.