The Book Thief
I love autumn. All those crisp mornings, the sound of crunchy leaves underfoot, fabulous colours. Our copper beech hedge is a golden blaze at the moment. Something to do with the spring drought and cool damp summer apparently.
I’ve just returned from Oxford, travelling by train, and can vouch for stunning russets and vibrant reds through to sunshine yellow everywhere. But speaking of colours … what about this as a description:
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.’
Death is the narrator of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s 1939. In Germany. The Nazis are increasingly forcing their politics onto the people, poverty and betrayal lurk in the scared streets, and Death is extremely busy. This could easily be a depressing, even macabre book, but it isn’t. Even Death himself is gently compassionate.
‘Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last gasping cries. Their French words. I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.
In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain. Even the clouds tried to look the other way.’
And he is gentle with the reader too, slipping in the occasional spoiler to soften the approach to sadness.
Tucked away in a little town called Molching, on the outskirts of Munich, lives Liesel. She’s a child with dangerous eyes – brown eyes, who has already known death and loss. Late at night her foster father, Hans Hubermann, patiently teaches her to read. Liesel is utterly mesmerised by words, but there is no money for books, so she takes matters into her own hands and acquires them by stealth.
Three men exert a powerful influence over her: a young criminal, a fugitive Jew and a man with a heart of gold. And gradually realisation of the encroaching horrors of war impinge on her childish innocence. She becomes even more intimately acquainted with Death.
Zusak’s writing style is uniquely his own. Strange little curlicued inserts give vital information. Staccato sentences, truncated paragraphs, haul you without mercy into the very kernel of the emotions and experiences of the time. The almost childish writing fits perfectly with the whole life-view of the characters. Its very simplicity tugs at the heart strings.
And seeing things from his own perspective, Death paints wonderfully evocative pictures of …
… the holocaust:
‘When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. Their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, and their spirits came towards me, into my arms. We climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.’
… of the blitz:
‘The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west. It looked through the windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of human beings into apparitions.
There were no more people on the streets any more.
There were rumours carrying bags.’
… of illness and death almost seven decades ago:
‘At thirteen, tragedy struck again when his uncle died.
As percentages would suggest, his uncle was not a hot-head like Max. He was the type of person who worked quietly away for very little reward. He was not a rich man. He did not take what was rightfully someone else’s – and he died of something growing in his stomach. Something akin to a poison bowling ball.
As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.
Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.
The man’s face was so accepting.
So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull –
The endless jawline, stretching for miles, the pop-up cheekbones and the pot-hole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.
Where’s the fight? he wondered.
Where’s the will to hold on?
Of course, at thirteen he was a little excessive in his harshness. He had not looked something like me in the face. Not yet.
With the rest of them, he stood around the bed and watched the man die – a safe merge, from life to death. The light in the window was grey and orange, the colour of summer’s skin, and his uncle appeared relieved when his breathing disappeared completely.
“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist in his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
I like that a lot.’
It’s salutary to see the war through the eyes of Germans. To realise the enemy is British. The hands that released the bombs that decimate Liesel’s home are those of the Allies. That the young pilot dying in the smoking and broken plane speaks English.
Suspend any preconceived ideas you might have, and if you can, your personal religious and moral beliefs, and let the poetry of this book speak to you. It’s at once moving and challenging, enjoyable and troubling. And when you’ve lingered a while over the last haunting sentence, do let me know which emotion predominates for you.
A couple of months ago Professor June Andrews of the Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University ordered 600 copies of my novel Remember Remember to distribute to delegates at the DSDC’s 4th International Conference in London. How cool was that!
Well, the conference has just happened. Here’s June blowing out the candle on the anniversary cake with the actor, Simon Callow.
I was wheeled in on a meet-the-author-and-get-your-copy-signed basis. And what an experience it turned out to be. On several levels.
Now, I must confess, London doesn’t feature on my list of top ten favourite places – I’m a country bumpkin at heart and all that noise and dirt and frenzy isn’t for me. But the ExCel Centre in the Docklands proved to be a stunning venue – loads of space; joy-of-joys – immaculate loos with never a queue (and believe me that’s a rarity at big conferences); abundant drinks breaks; helpful staff; a chocolate fountain … ExCellent!
Unfortunately though, there was one serious glitch. In spite of all the careful planning and checking, the books didn’t arrive until lunchtime on the last day. This highly organised team (in pink to make them easily identifiable to those without dementia as well as with) must have been pretty fed up about that, although it was completely outside our control, but to their credit they remained calm and philosophical – at least outwardly.
However, the hiccup had an unexpected bonus for me; it meant that I was free to attend sessions on the previous day. Wow! Lots of inspiring things are going on in the world of dementia and it was great to hear about them from the frontline people. Practical advice as well as careful analysis of research findings. A veritable feast.
Just in case you don’t know, age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia. In a week where I am due to celebrate (?) yet another birthday, that’s quite a sobering reality. As my delightful 7-year-old grandson informed me spontaneously, I shall be older than the number of zoo homes around the world for the snow tiger! (Answers on a postcard please.)
I can’t, of course, slow down time, so I’m concentrating on mitigating other risks:
- taking care of my cardiovascular system
- watching my diet
- keeping my mind and body active
- maintaining a strong social network …
It was useful to have them all rehearsed so succinctly, and if I hadn’t been feeling utterly lousy from a bug on the return journey I’d have started exercising in earnest there and then. As it was I was so dizzy and sick I had to lie down all the way. I even had to pack away the book I’d taken for the purpose –The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a treat I’d been specially saving for this trip. More of that another time.
But let me tell you, being in a conference with people who work in the world of dementia is an incredibly uplifting and reassuring experience. This is my second exposure, and as last time, I was blown away by the sheer warmth and empathy of these special folk. En masse they leave a huge impression. As one of the plenary speakers said, they aren’t interested in a love of power; they believe in the power of love. Too true. It’s positively palpable. It was a real privilege to listen to them and already they’re contacting me with comments about Remember Remember. Lots of them started reading as they travelled home on trains and planes – what a heartening picture that conjures up. Others asked for their copies to be dedicated to colleagues and groups and special relatives and friends grappling with the realities of the disease. Every last one of them was so courteous and appreciative. If the book helps them to feel they are not alone, if it enables them to be even more sensitive, to care even better, it’ll have achieved its aim. I’m only sorry our one-to-one conversations were curtailed because in the event there were only three hours left to sign 600 books.
I’m indebted to my altruistic publisher, Luath Press, and to the wonderful staff at the Dementia Services Development Centre, for making this all possible. OK, the plans did go ever so slightly agley*, but the overall experience was fab! (Oh, and special thanks to Tony Marsh – lovely man as well as talented artist – and DSDC for the photos.)
* For the uninitiated: a Scots word for awry taken from Robert Burns’ famous quote: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley (From ‘To a Mouse’)
PS. Also during this past week, 45 organisations have united to form the Dementia Action Alliance. They say that by signing a National Dementia Declaration they are setting in stone their ‘very real commitment to transform the lives of people with dementia and their carers.’ They’re seeking early diagnosis, adequate support and help, and research towards a cure. All power to their elbow!