Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Death As A Narrator: The Book Thief

The most interesting thing about Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, is probably the way the extraordinary story is being told. Unlike most books who has an omnipresent voice that we know as the narrator who is never identified or the protagonist of the novel tell the story, Markus Zusak personified a state of being known as Death and created a character that is sympathetic, slightly cynical, yet humorous, and relatable. The character of death is not cold and malicious, instead the author surprises the reader by creating a character that is warm and sympathetic to the characters he follows. Like the dead, he is a victim to circumstance and he frequently questions his purpose and the intentions of his creator, much like the humans do. He is as much an observer as the reader, but because he is Death and life and death are the two common denominators for humans, he becomes the glue to the entire novel. He is able to spy on the lives of characters that have never interacted with Liesle, and he is able to express their last dying thoughts. Since The Book Thief does take place in Nazi Germany and death was rampant during that time with the concentration camps, battle fields, disease, and starvation, having a narrator that is Death makes the cold cruelty an underscore to the setting which the reader cannot forget. Even in parts of the novel where the worries of the war and conflict are forgotten and Liesle lives the life of a seemingly ordinary child, Death is present. He becomes both an insightful narrator and a constant foreshadowing device.  
            Because it is written in media res, meaning that Death already knows the ending to Liesle’s story and he constantly gives us sneak peaks to the ending, the narrator often gives away blunt truths or details to the end of the story. Though he is kind to the dying and even more sympathetic to those that have been left behind, he cuts right to the cold, hard truth. It is this no nonsense attitude that shapes his character, and gives the novel a new dimension. From the very first page, he has been extremely honest and even blunt to the reader. He delivers uncomfortable and sometimes upsetting news in a straightforward way that sometimes forces the reader to contemplate universal ideas such as death. In the second paragraph of the novel, he states, “Here is a small fact. You are going to die.” And it is his honesty and bluntness in handling this tale that makes every moment touching and genuine because with such a narrator, nothing that occurs within the novel feels forced or faked. While the narrator has never interacted with Liesle face-to-face, through a series of many unfortunate events, he has gotten a glimpse of her time and time again. Liesle manages to escape death many times, much like her father, and somehow these “almost” interactions make the ending where Liesle is able to embrace Death without any grudges or hard feelings believable. Circumstance brings the two characters together, just as it brought Max and Liesle together. And while Death is a personified figure, he is as lost as any of the other characters are. He interacts directly with a reader, just as a human might, and leaves us with a lasting thought with his final comment: “A last note from your narrator. I am haunted by humans.” 

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