The Narrative Voice of Death: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

liesel-libraryThe narrative voice, as one who unravels a story to the reader; is interesting to explore as it bring a unique perspective to the novel. In this case, the narrative voice of Death acts as a director of the lives he witnesses, a storyteller masking the misery during the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews during WW2 through the simplicity of storytelling. “The Book Thief” takes the form of a Meta-fictional style, the act of writing becomes the subject; of which the character of Death capitalises on the “truth” blending fiction and reality through irony and self reflection. In the text, the narrator reflects on the capability of humanity and mankind’s ability to be simultaneously beautiful and destructive; characteristics which often puzzle and surprise Death. 

Death is an omnipresent and omniscient force whose job is to collect souls; it is humanised and displays a vulnerability and sentimentality of spirit. The question is put forth to the reader; what if Death can possess the ability to feel and care for the lives of those it witnesses?  As the narrator itself claims, “the human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I am always finding humans at their best and worst.  I see their ugly and beauty and wonder how the same thing can be both.”(p.491) It is through the narrative voice which brings our attention to the nature of mankind and teaches us to observe what we as humans are capable of; and the possible consequences of our choices in life.

f992718582e6ba92d30f06f6a156840cIt points out it is often misconstrued as a stereotypical being, a Grim Reaper figure with a cloak and scythe. Cynically, it continues, “You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.” (p.307) Though this is metaphorical, it brings to the reader’s attention how Death is within all of us, our fears, hopes. The concept is all around and part of us, it is something we should not be afraid of. So what shapes our view of Death? Is it shaped by what we see in the media, as shown by the vision of the Grim Reaper, or by our experiences? From an early age, our first experience of Death is perhaps through the loss of a pet. If a pet dies, parents struggle with how best to share this information in a way which will not horrify or scar the child, as it is something which will remain in their experiences for years to come. For us all, death is equated with sadness and pain so it is no surprise we are scared of it. “Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say “I know who you are and I am ready.” (p.532) The narrator, though direct and frank in its choice of words; illustrates to the reader the familiarity it has with humans, like meeting a close friend. There is a comfort in that, it is familiar with its occupation and therefore imparts to the reader the lessons and inevitability of life to soften the transition.  

The Book Thief

“The Book Thief” (2013) Liesel and Rudy race each other

Death often refers to Liesel as the “Book Thief” in the novel. The title of the novel is dedicated to her. So what is the significance? The reason for this is her love for stealing books. In the case of Liesel, not only is stealing a representation of a girl’s defiance against adversary and the influence of the Nazi regime but she is taking her education into her own hands.

So is it acceptable to steal something if it is abandoned, or left to burn? As children we are taught to treat books with respect, to assign value to words. Nowadays we live in a society which relies predominantly on technology. In the West, there is still a focus on reading for pleasure, yet less and less children have the motivation or desire to read storybooks, especially ones that do not contribute to schooling. So how do we encourage kids to read and share their love of reading with others? Like Liesel it can be a very special and personal experience. For her, it is the thrill of stealing something back- everyone has their own motivation, the conscious act of choosing their first book and their sense of achievement when they finish it. Through a Russian Doll effect, of a story within a story, the narrator Death has a unique ability to reignite the passion to read, the act of picking up a book and feeling its spine, the letters on the cover. Each book is different, just like each individual in the world. Perhaps it is this love and treasuring of words that makes Liesel’s actions more acceptable to the reader; after all, Death does not judge Liesel for her acts of stealing but regards her determination with pleasant surprise.

Liesel in the neighbour’s library

A history lesson

Death can be considered a very unlikely narrator giving a history lesson to children in the text. Comparable to the autobiography “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” from a Jewish girl’s perspective, “The Book Thief” focuses on a German girl’s point of view. Though this is a novel, many children today live similar lives to Liesel; orphans, homeless, starving in the backdrop of war. Death serves as the omnipresent and omniscient voice that as a reader, we do not doubt, focusing on children and how war impacts on them. The world is watching events unfold in the past, yet do we learn from our mistakes? Is history repeating itself? The narrator wishes to highlight on this important point, encouraging the reader to think and, as mentioned above to form their own opinions on what is right and wrong. In fact, the narrator believes: Living a good or bad life is its own reward or punishment.

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“The Book Thief” (2013) Liesel & Hans

Language to convey meaning

Another point to discuss in relation to Death’s narrative voice is the understanding of the structure of language to convey meaning, “the words were on their way and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds and she would wring them out; like the rain. (p. 85)” It is the unexpectedness of language and the unique way Death offers information. It explores everyday and common aspects such as rain and clouds but describes it in a way which seems unique and different to the reader; as if they are seeing it for the first time.

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“The Book Thief” (2013) The Hubermanns’ at home

The narrative voice of Death is a teacher, a guide and storyteller. Death transcends time and place, encouraging us to think about topics in a way we are unaccustomed to, allowing the reader to learn about themselves through the narrative. It is a process with no definitive outcome. It is the punishment and reward of living, a story of hope and the beauty of mankind despite humans ability to perform such horrors and destruction.Essentially the novel is a universal book because it appeals to our human psyche, our compassion and our sense of right and wrong; of injustice. No matter our background, our situation in life or where we come from, there is undeniably something for everyone in the novel. May it be the love of books, of music, of singing or reading and drawing. Of friendship and family and laughter, the narrative voice of Death cements all together through its brilliant storytelling.

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 (Review on “The Book Thief” 2013 film will follow shortly…)

Copyright © 2014 by Kate W J White (All Rights Reserved)

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