Death and the maiden
With five successful young adult novels behind him, Markus Zusak is not afraid of the big questions. Brian Donaldson profiles the writer with a hankering for Death.
The literary canon is riddled with unreliable narrators. From Holden Caulfield to Humbert Humbert and the voices which lead you through Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart the first-person perspective can never truly be trusted. But when it comes to the central voice of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, you will certainly find that you’re hanging on his every word. For Death is your guide, grimly reaping what others have sown (particularly enjoying how busy his work gets during wartime). In an interview last year for American magazine Book Page, Zusak notes that he initially had Death down as being more macabre but that his narrator became more interesting when he was infused with a hint of compassion: ‘We’re so scared of death,’ said the author. ‘But what if it was the other way around as well?’
So, while Death revels in the carnage spilling out onto the fields of Europe during the 1940s, he (for now, let’s just assume it’s a bloke) takes it upon himself to shield little Liesel Meminger under his scythe-grasping wing. Having seen her brother die and her mother flee, she joins her new foster parents, an almost Dickensian pairing of the kindly, lazy Hans and a beast with a heart, Rosa. Despite some of her friends joining the Hitler Youth, Liesel is happier stealing books and hiding them from the roaming Nazis, though there is an even bigger secret in their basement as the family have helped a Jewish boxer Max duck for cover.
It might seem like a daunting start of the year to get into The Book Thief’s near-600 pages but they do roll along. ‘When I was growing up, I heard stories at home about Munich and Vienna in wartime, when my parents were children,’ Zusak writes on his website. ‘The stories my mother told me affected me a lot.’ And they altered his perception of a unified Nazi Germany, replacing a false impression of its entire population goose-stepping into historical oblivion. The anecdotes his mother shared with him were vignettes of compassion, of people risking their own futures to help those in danger from Hitler and his murderous cronies. ‘There were still rebellious children and people who didn’t follow the rules,’ Zusak continues.
Until The Book Thief stormed its way to the top of the New York Times bestseller pile, his most successful work was I Am the Messenger, a mystery tale in which an unknown presence is leaving cryptic communications on playing cards for an underage cab driver whose only true companion is a caffeine-addled dog. The strange words lead our anti-hero into some heroic deeds but it’s unsure whether he knows exactly what he is doing and to what end. The tale won a string of awards in his Aussie homeland but this will surely be nothing compared to the plaudits which arrive at his door for the gloriously ambitious The Book Thief. According to Zusak, his main escape from life comes when he leaves his Sydney home to head for the waters and go surfing. It’s not the only crest of a wave that he’s riding now.
The Book Thief is published by Doubleday on Mon 15 Jan.