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Death And Trauma: Narratology In The Book Thief

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The Book Thief published in 2005 is Markus Zusak’s fifth and most popular novel. Markus Zusak was born in Australia to German-Austrian parents who fled Germany at the time of the Second World War. The Book Thief is written in a German perspective. It is set in the fictional town of Molching in Nazi Germany. It tells the tale of nine year old Liesel Meminger and her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The Hubermanns are not like the rest of the people in their town as they are sympathetic to the Jews, hide a Jewish man, and loathe Hitler and his totalitarian regime. Zusak is one of the few writers to shed light on the rare yet present sympathetic outlook of the Germans. In The Book Thief, Zusak brought about a more sympathetic German perspective that was not often represented in Holocaust literature. He showed the viewpoint of a handful of people who were not in agreement with the Nazi ideology and who actually tried to do something to help those who were being murdered. Zusak created the Hubermanns in such a way that they represent everything the Nazis were not. Hans Hubermann is the kind of man who disowned his only son for being a Nazi, hid a Jewish fist fighter by the name of Max Vandenburg in the basement of his house and tried to help Jews in all the ways possible by him, for which he paid the price, as described in the book, “It happened so quickly. The hand that held firmly on to Liesel’s let it drop to her side as the man came struggling by. She felt her palm slap her hip. Papa reached into his paint cart and pulled something out. He made his way through the people, onto the road.

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The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic. When it changed hands, the Jew slid down. He fell to his knees and held Papa’s shins. He buried his face between them and thanked him. Liesel watched.

With tears in her eyes, she saw the man slide farther forward, pushing Papa back to cry into his ankles. Other Jews walked past, all of them watching this small, futile miracle. They streamed by, like human water. That day, a few would reach the ocean. They would be handed a white cap. Wading through, a soldier was soon at the scene of the crime. He studied the kneeling man and Papa, and he looked at the crowd. After another moment’s thought, he took the whip from his belt and began. The Jew was whipped six times. On his back, his head, and his legs. “You filth! You swine!” Blood dripped now from his ear. Then it was Papa’s turn.

A new hand held Liesel’s now, and when she looked in horror next to her, Rudy Steiner swallowed as Hans Hubermann was whipped on the street. The sound sickened her and she expected cracks to appear on her papa’s body. He was struck four times before he, too, hit the ground. When the elderly Jew climbed to his feet for the last time and continued on, he looked briefly back. He took a last sad glance at the man who was kneeling now himself, whose back was burning with four lines of fire, whose knees were aching on the road. If nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Or at least with the thought that he was a human” (Zusak, 2013) (400-01). This extract in the novel says a lot about Hans and also Liesel’s relationship with him. Hans is clearly not weak or cowardly, as he is one of the few people in Molching who directly challenged Hitler’s regime. He is guided by his conscience, and suffered greatly when he felt he had acted in error. He is the kind of man who cannot stand to see others in pain, and at times this sense of empathy causes him to put himself and his family in jeopardy. Perhaps, it is this and selfless empathetic nature of her Papa that made him all the more endearing to her. When Liesel first arrived at the Hubermanns she had immense trouble to even talk with her foster parents as she had gone through psychological traumas like the death of her younger brother and the abandonment of her mother. Hans did what little he could do to help Liesel and in return Liesel noticed all the goodness in him that most people in such an environment thought was dangerous to have, as Death describes in the novel, “To most people, Hans Hubermann was barely visible. An un-special person. Certainly, his paintings were excellent. His musical ability was better than average. Somehow, though, and I’m sure you’ve met people like this, he had the ability to appear in the background, even if he was standing at the front of a queue. He was always just there. Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable.

The frustration of that appearance, as you can imagine, was its complete misleadence, let’s say. There most definitely was value in him, and it did not go unnoticed by Liesel Meminger. (The human child – so much cannier at times than the stupefyingly ponderous adult). She saw it immediately. His manner. The quiet air around him. When he turned the light on in small callous wash room that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father’s eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot”. (40-41).

One aspect of Zusak’s novel that has received a large amount of critical attention and the thing that sets this story apart from many others is the choice of narrator. Zusak’s choice to represent the story through the eyes of a personified Death is unique. Instead of having Death be something malicious and worthy of fear, Death is instead frightened by humans and the terrible things they do to each other. The image that Death provides of itself is that of an omnipotent entity who observes Liesel’s experiences and makes comments about the human beings. Zusak enlightens the simplicity of the story by bestowing the mantle of the narrator to Death. Having Death as a character who witnesses what Liesel goes through allows Zusak to play with the book’s narrative structure as Death goes back and forth in time and seems to be everywhere in the world, as if Death is, by the force of its own nature, an omniscient narrator. Death is as important as any other character in this story and is always referred to as a proper noun rather than a common noun. When death means the end of life it is referred to with a lowercase letter and when death means the narrator it is referred to with an uppercase letter. The novel starts with Death explaining his role in general, and in particular, explaining which story he is telling and how he will structure it: “It’s just a small story really, about, amongst other things:

  • a girl
  • some words
  • an accordionist
  • some fanatical Germans
  • a Jewish fist fighter
  • and quite a lot of thievery.

I saw the book thief three times” (15). In the first few chapters, Death keeps the narrative centred on himself, even though he is telling Liesel’s story. He is touched by the poignancy of her story and decides to revisit it and pass it on to the readers of The Book Thief. For example, he explains where he first met her, but with his own thoughts at the forefront: “I studied the blinding, white snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckled – I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched” (17). From the beginning of “Part One,” although he does interject quite often and explain the events surrounding Liesel and his own role in them, he moves in and out of focusing more explicitly on Liesel’s experiences, as read in the book that she had written that was dropped one of the last times that Death met her, in a street made of fire.

As Jonathan Klassen, Associate Professor in Sochoow University explains in his essay, Anything but Normal: Narrative Control in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, “He [Death] has apparently fallen so much in love with her [Liesel] story that he has imagined her story well past the facts of what he actually knows. The story he loves and relates is not simply Liesel’s story, but his version of that story. Put in other words, it is not the child’s story, but the adult version of the child’s story that compels him” (2). This brings to light two factors of the novel. The first factor is the position of the narrator in the story as a mediator for the stories he relates to the reader and the other one is Death’s acknowledgement of the trauma that Liesel goes through. All of Liesel’s trauma is unfurled to the readers through the eyes of Death and however strange it may sound it is certain that Death lives through Liesel. If Death is analysed as a narrator, it is clear he is not human, as he is not a living being. He is some kind of supernatural entity which escapes the full understanding of every human being, but, at the same time, Death is too similar to human beings, aggregating many human traits, such as moral pain (he suffers), curiosity (he wants to know Liesel) and perplexity (humans are so good and so bad). Besides all that, he is still able to use sarcasm. He may not be a human, but he for sure behaves like one.

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