‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak

If you follow me on Twitter you may have come across my rant-y tweets about The Book Thief over the last couple of weeks and be advised this is a highly subjective, long and personal review. It is an international bestseller and I was recommended this book by several people. I usually stay far away from WWII literature because we covered this topic to death in school. Sometimes it seems that the only literature Germans care about is that concerning World War II. However when even John Green tells you a book is great you set aside your dislike for a genre and give it a try.

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My problem with this sort of literature is that I irrationally feel responsible for what has happened over 70 years ago just due to me being born a German. When we had to watch Schindler’s List in 10th grade religion class, I was numb every time I came out of that 45 minute class – we watched the film in increments – to the extent that I wanted to move far away from Germany, never speak German ever again and adopt another nationality. I also feel defensive for the Germans of that time because not everyone was a Nazi back then (which this book is also showing). The happenings are a result of the times and books like ‘The War Between the Classes’ or ‘The Wave’ have explored how the ideas of one crazy man can infatuate a whole country. I am by now means condoning Hitler, what he brought over the world was despicable.

Moving on to the actual discussion of this book. I guess I am in a rather unique position because (1) I read this book in English while understanding German, (2) have had a LOT of education in school on WWII and (3) I grew up with tales about my grandma’s life in the war. She was born in 1934 which made her 11 when the war ended.

This almost 600 page long novel is a really slow moving story. The first 2/3 were extremely difficult for me because there was tons of exposition and not a lot of story, nothing that I hadn’t read in some form or another already. What really got me though was Zusak’s choice to implement German words in his sentences that I still don’t fully understand at times or that is just grammatically incorrect. Let me give you some examples:

(1) Zusak makes a point out of explaining that Himmel means heaven because Liesel moves to Himmel Street. Why not call it either Heaven Street if you insist on the street or Himmelsstrasse (as it would most likely actually be called). This alone is not so bad but when you consider that Munich Street and Grande Strasse are oftentimes mentioned in the book I start to have my problems with this because it is inconsistent. In my opinion, either you translate all the names or you stick to one format.

(2) The Gravediggers handbook that Liesel steals was published by the Bayern Cemetery Association. Yikes. Why keep the Bayern when you translate cemetery association? It’s either Bayrisches Friedhofsamt, Friedhofsamt Bayern or Bavarian Cemetery Association. Enough with the half translated stuff. There is more where that came from I’m just too lazy to look them all up.

(3) The Duden dictionary is cited to explain us the word Zufriedenheit. It is translated with happiness which makes me cringe to no end. Yes, these words kind of mean something similar but it’s not the right or best translation. Zufriedenheit is more like contentment or satisfaction whereas happiness would be translated into German rather with the words Freude or Fr√∂hlichkeit.

(4) “They didn’t need a Luftschutzwarte – ¬†an air-raid supervisor.” Again, questionable word choice. A Luftschutzwarte would be an observatory point from where the look out for air-raids. What I think he means is a Luftschutzwart. Luftschutzwarte could also be seen as the plural of Luftschutzwart but as it is made abundantly clear Zusak wants the singular of the word, so it’s wrong in this context.

(5) There is one part I couldn’t find anymore but there is a German verb used in present tense while the English word that would have been in its place is an infinitive or the other way around, something like that. I don’t remember it exactly.

Of course you could say that these things are rather small and I am being petty-minded; I will not entirely disagree with you but, and this is a big but, a lot of these things are used over and over and over again, especially the things mention under (1) and (2) and when you read these so many times, it just gets on your nerves.

Like I mentioned above, this novel is very slow moving for the most part. I like the relationship Liesel has with her papa and that she starts to read and all that but oh my god it takes forever to get through this. Also, Liesel does not have to do a lot of chores, she spends so much time learning to read, the only thing she ever does is take her mothers washing to the people of Molching.

Another reading related thing I can’t get behind is, how do they afford all the candles, electricity or lamp oil to foster all that reading in the dark? It’s a point in this book that the Hubermanns are really poor, they live in the worst part of town and don’t have a steady income. My grandma for example was not allowed to just read at night because it’s a waste of light so she at least had to do knitting or to stuff holes in her wardrobe while reading.

Not that much of Liesel’s life is unique or extraordinary for children in that period of time. M grandma never expected to live past the age of 12 because she couldn’t imagine outliving the war. The air raids described in the novel are somewhat laughable. They last for a couple of yours at best. Again with the grandma comparison but her family had beds made up in their basement in which they slept for days sometimes or they spent entire nights/days – just more than a couple of hours – in bunkers or old adios depending on how much time they had to get there. Many infants died during that time because they more or less grew up in dark, poorly ventilated and highly humid places crammed together with other people. My grandma’s brother was born in 1944 and and my great grandma used every opportunity to let the poor baby sit outside in the pram so he wouldn’t get sick. Again you could argue that the book more or less stops in 1943 when air raids just started but I feel the fear they were passing out is not captured correctly. They only ever happen when all of the Hubermanns are together, not when Liesel is at school and doesn’t have enough time to get home, or when they are doing farm work (which the Hubermanns don’t do in general but it’s a legit thing) and they had to hide under bushes and trees.

What I really liked about The Book Thief were Death’s interludes, when you get his point of view on the war and the useless killing that was going on. It’s a very interesting way to tell this story. Also, the last 200-150 pages really got me. It’s not like you don’t know what is coming your way but I cried like a little baby when it finally happened. If the whole book would have moved more at the speed of the last third, I would probably have enjoyed it much more. I did have to be so narrow minded in the beginning because there just wan’t enough other stuff going on for me to be preoccupied with.

To conclude this, my biggest problem with The Book Thief is, that when I make a point out of using another language in my book I double and triple check that it makes sense. I am by far an authority on grammar, regardless of the language but if even I can tell that things don’t make sense, it’s really not that good.
The ending really helped my review of this book, I can see the appeal of the story but it just also comes with a LOT of shortcomings from my perspective. As I mentioned above, this is a rather uniquely personal review and most readers will not have had all the problems with it as I did.

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  • EmilyHornburg

    I agree – it moved really slowly. Especially at first. While I enjoyed it the entire time, it was hard to get through sometimes. One Max came into the picture I started to get into it WAY more and yes…. so much crying at the end. And I loved Death. I thought he was a fantastic narrator. And the other things didn’t really bother me… but that’s because I didn’t know about them. (Language, how the air raids ACTUALLY were, etc.) So thank you for the education! Also- when I picked the book up I didn’t actually know what it was about. I thought it was fantasy for some reason. So when it started being all WWII I was SO CONFUSED. lol

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      When Max arrived I still had major problems with it, it was still not enough happening for me and it’s not like the Hubermanns were the only Germany family to harbour a fugitive Jew during that time.

      Sometimes it’s better to not know things in order to enjoy them. I actually read up a little on the book when I first heard of it and when I read WWII I was all NOPE! But after hearing many people say it’s good I decided to give it a try nonetheless. It’s not bad but doesn’t agree with my own version of the war.

  • literature_nut

    I hate when novels make blatant grammar fau-pas where I have to question whether the editor knew what they were doing or not. So, I don’t think you’re petty for pointing those mistakes out. If a book is going to include a foreign language, than the editor should understand that language, too. Mistakes like that disconnect the reader, and it’s just plain irritating.

    • Wilhelmina Upton

      That’s how I think too. Just make double sure the foreign thing you’re using as a narrative device is actually right and not full of errors. Apparently that’s too much to ask from a best selling novel.