Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Book Thief - Reviewing Elements

Those of you not part of the Litopia phenomenon, one of our latest brainwaves is to host a book group, so as to discuss varying elements, issues, styles and likes/dislikes). We've been reading Markus Zusak's The Book Thief this month, and having a little discussion on it. I include my thoughts here also (not least to fulfill the criteria of my NAW course - I have been doing stuff really, teacher):

The Book Thief - Opening

I started the Book Thief long before the book club, and got to 100 pages before setting it down and having then to pass it onto another reader (damn library books and patron requests). Of course the reason I set it down were due to the book's lolloping narrative, something that I did not feel had become a problem until about page 50.

The opening in particular, I found very interesting and we immediately get a sense of Death, of our narrator, and the style in which we are going to be presented the narrative throughout the story - there will be no surprises later on with the introduction of bullet points, narrator asides, or the pre-chapter summing up. They're all present right there at the beginning.

It's like Zuzak has gathered his tool box together and set out what he wants to use on the first pages as a reminder to the style he will stick to, throughout.

However, what does change is the narrative style - later chapters flow with large swathes of description, whole paragraphs filled with what's happening. The opening chapters are very bitty.

It has to be difficult to set up Death as a narrator and present us with his foibles and indiosyncracies:

First up is something white. Of the blinding kind.

Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a colour and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well I'm here to tell you that it is. White is without question a colour, and personally, I don't think you want to argue.
It raises the question: "What is Zuzak doing here?" since the story is supposed to be leading us toward a meeting with Liesel, but instead we're discussing the finer definitions of the colour white. It's unnecessary, and I wonder if Zuzak started off writing in the voice of Death to get a feel for his narration, and then chose to put all the woolly wanderings into the book simply because he'd done all the leg work of writing them!

By 50 pages in we've forgotten the discourse on colours, so why bother us? What purpose does it have?


The style is an interesting one, as I mentioned in the previous thread:

The opening in particular, I found very interesting and we immediately get a sense of Death, of our narrator, and the style in which we are going to be presented the narrative throughout the story - there will be no surprises later on with the introduction of bullet points, narrator asides, or the pre-chapter summing up. They're all present right there at the beginning.
Each part begins with a breakdown of the following chapters (like Pratchett's Going Postal) except that these aren't entirely the chapter headings. They're more thematic than that:

Mein Kampf (P.133): the way home - a broken woman - a struggler - a juggler - the attributes of summer - an aryan shopkeeper - a snorer - two tricksters - and revenge in the shape of mixed lollies

Some of these are chapter headings, others regard content. But the effect is to give us a sense of rhythm, a brief overview (of what to look forward to - if any of you really relished moving on - wow! a snorer! That'll be interesting!) and potentially, for Zuzak, a way for him to keep track of what happens when and where.

But what purpose do they really serve? Are they just a device for maintaining the style, or something more?

Do we remember them by the end of the chapter, or part? I'd say a definite no. Perhaps, even by page two of a chapter, I'd forgotten what the chapter was called.

Do we pay enough attention to warrant them? Are they cookies meant to keep us reading (in a similar way to Zuzak repeatedly foretelling someone's imminent, or not so, death) - would we not bother continuing without them?

I mean, it's a good -enough- story, but it seemed to lag - like a biography. We know it has to reach the otherside of the war (wouldn't we all be very angry if the book ended halfway through and we closed the last page thinking that for the characters who remained, the war was yet to end), and so, aside from the so-and-so is soon to die (so it goes), The Book Thief doesn't have a particular narrative drive - we just dip in and out!

The Word Shaker was about standing up against the Fascism - in a way it's like standing up the lies and bigotry and the loud-shoutiness of all man-made cults, dogmas and doctrines. Here are two characters prepared to stand against the stupidity of the sheep, because their truth is far stronger than even the loudest of Hitler's screaming rhetoric... but, but...

I understand the story's meaning, just not why the tree died at the end of it, and what that was supposed to mean


Hitchcock's bomb (not his box, which is, obviously a discussion on McGuffins)...

Take page 505, finally we reach Zucker's death - and this has been foretold many-many pages before it occurs. This gives us a distinct lack of surprise when it does happen - we don't have any invested interest in this particular character, so is Zuzak turning a wasted opportunity on its head and giving us something to expect, to wait for (he does indeed do this a lot).

Hitchcock (as I believe Robert McKee states in his book Story) that if you had two people discussing a situation at a table, perhaps they're dining there, and after a time the table explodes, and they both die, then, short of the shock factor - oh my - and the confusion... what do we go away with?

Not a lot.

Now, what if we have two people at a table, let's say they're dining again, and chatting away, and Hitchcock lets us see that there is a bomb sitting under the table, right where the couple can't see it. And we can see that there is a countdown, and we, the audience, know that the couple don't know about the bomb, and don't know about the countdown, and we do the little maths and realise that they won't escape in time, and that no one is coming to pull them away, then we have a form of dramatic irony.

We are in a greater position of knowledge than the characters - which creates a sense of tension, and spurs us to remain glued to our seat, our fingers on the book, our eyes to the page.

The pay off is that we've seen it coming and long hoped for a reprise, for saviour or deus ex machina - and it hasn't come. In Rudy's case we have come to like Rudy, and join in his adventures (adventures that are in no way diminished by constant reminder of his foreboding death).

The fact is, if I'm cynical, Zuzak would have had no real means to keep his readers reading without this kind of cookie to entice the reader on. The narrative plods, is more biographical of accounts that action/adventure/thriller, and the problem a lot of us have had in sticking through with it is largely, I believe, down to a distinct lack of anything big or attention grabbing.

That's why foretelling Rudy's death and continually reminding us is a bit of a cheat.

Also, it could seem that Zuzak is arguing in some fashion against Shoah (there's no business like Shoah-business) getting all the limelight - "My German ancestors had it bad too, you know!" he seems to say. "We were stuck here, bound by the fervour of our zealots, without a word or opportunity of rising up against it all."

And that is probably the biggest factor in people not feeling fulfilled by the piece at all - it's like setting the original Star Wars trilogy entirely from Lando Calrissian's pov (oh, I've lost the Falcon, oh the Empire are being mean to my friend, and now proposing to leave an Imperial garrison! And now I've got to lose Bespin and go fight too... Sigh)

A far better book that touches upon this level of bigotry, but doubles-back to trully show and deal with the effects is Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. The protagonist has it largely easy, even when the Taliban get going - and then he flees Afghanistan altogether.

The key being that he still has a link to that place, has unbridled guilt, and must return to right a wrong, an in so doing endanger his life.

General Thoughts

A couple of thoughts on the Book Thief

# P.148 (A tell as a marker that leads us into a show):

Soon, her sedated condition transformed to harassment, and self-loathing. She began to rebuke herself.

'You said nothing.' Her head shook vigorously, amongst the hurried footsteps. 'Not a goodbye. Not a thank you. Not a that's the most beautiful sight I've ever seen. Nothing!' Certainly, she was a book thief, but that didn't mean she should have no manners at all. It didn't mean she couldn't be polite.

# P.157 (phraseology to match mood and subject):

'Johann Hermann,' she said. 'Who is that?'

The woman looked beside her, somewhere next to the girl's knees.

Liesel apologised. 'I'm sorry. I shouldn't be asking such things...' She let the sentence die its own death.'

The woman's face did not alter, yet somehow she managed to speak. 'He is nothing now in this world,' she explained. 'He was my...'

# P.175 (as above):

The road was icy as it was, but Rudy put on the extra coat, barely able to contain a grin. It ran across his face like a skid.

# P.329 (Death's Diary - here we're sidelined in the story to join Death):

What's the point of this sojourn? To tell us more stuff that Liesel or anyone in Molching would otherwise know. Death allows Zuzak to frame the narrative in the wider story of Nazi Germany and all the evil that happened. It's a bit of a cheat, and like his little asides (the tells), it's a bit distracting, but it does have purpose.

Also, it's interesting how he leads back into the story (P.332), linking us in with the wider picture:

Unknowingly, she awaits a great many things that I alluded to just a minute ago, but she also waits for you.

She's carrying some snow down to a basement, of all places.

Handfuls of frosty water can make almost anyone smile, but it cannot make them forget.

Here she comes.

# P.333 - Backtracking / flashback:

We start in the present (of the story) developing Liesel's present situation and physicality, and then scoot backwards:

Opinions varied, but Rosa Hubermann claimed that the seeds were sown at Christmas the previous year. The twenty-fourth of December had been hungry and cold...

# P.437 - Juicy descriptions:

A wooden hand swiped at the splinters of his fringe, and he made several attempts to speak.

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