Friday, November 21, 2014

The Book Thief

Book Review

This is primarily a novel about the Nazi Germany during the Second World War years.  It tells the story of a young girl named Liesel who loses her mother and brother when is she is only 9 years old.  Her brother dies and her mother is taken away by Hitler’s people as she is a communist.  Liesel is handed over to Hans and Rosa Huberman.  She is the titular book thief and the first book is stolen during her brother’s funeral.  Symbolically, the book is A Gravedigger’s Handbook.  Her foster father will teach her how to read and she will steal a few more books eventually.

Hitler’s Nazis burnt books which were seen as opposed to their interests.  The Nazis created their own history, myths and illusions.  Hitler was a powerful orator who hated one particular community of people whom he sent to their death brutally.  Death was ubiquitous in Hitler’s Germany.  No wonder, Death is the narrator of Markus Zusak’s novel.  Hitler towers behind in the background unseen and yet making his presence felt like an undauntedly haunting ghost. 

Hitler knew the power of words and he used it effectively in order to murder millions of Jews as well as to project himself and his beloved Aryan race as the sole rightful inheritors of the earth.   Books too make use of words.  Liesel is in love with the magical worlds created by books.  But Hitler and Liesel are diametrically opposed to each other.  Hitler kills the Jews and Liesel’s foster parents shelter a Jew in their basement and have sympathy for the other Jews.

Zusak succeeds in creating a unique atmosphere in the novel which tells an extremely painful story.  There’s much poetry in the narrative.  There are some literary techniques employed too in order to pin our attention on certain notions which might otherwise escape our attention.

The essentially paradoxical nature of man is well illustrated in the novel.  We come across cruelty and compassion, love and hatred, genuine humanity and fabricated concerns.  Man is a bizarre creature in many ways.  Even Death, the narrator, will admit it.  It is haunted by humans, it says.  Even Hitler who fed on the lives of six million Jews will haunt Death eventually.

The novel grips the imagination with its poignant scenes and magical poetry.  But it can be a bit challenging in many places.  The reader cannot afford to be distracted; otherwise he will miss much.

Living in India at a time when its history faces the threat of being rewritten by a leader whose eloquence is a match for Hitler’s, I found The Book Thief very relevant and enchanting.

PS. The novel was converted into a movie last year.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014



“I’m sorry, mum,” said little Nancy.  She apologised for everything from spilling the milk to forgetting to kiss her goodbye before leaving for school.  Just the opposite of her father. 

Sheetal smiled wryly as she remembered the day he said goodbye to her husband.  “You are so arrogant.  What do you think you are to possess such a Himalayan ego?  You commit all kinds of blunders while dealing with people.  You don’t know how to behave in a society.  You make a fool of yourself in every party after taking the first drink....”  It was endless list of omissions and commissions.  “And you never apologise even if you know you committed the most heinous offence.  Learn to apologise, that’s the least you can do!”

“Mum,” asked Nancy while the car was moving away from her father’s house, “what does ‘apo...’, ‘apol...’, ‘apolg...’ mean?”

Mum looked into her eyes for a moment and kissed her cheek. 

She repeated the question a number of times in different ways on various occasions even weeks after they had started living in their new house.

“It means to say sorry, darling,” finally Mum explained to her the meaning of ‘apologise’.  She used the word ‘sorry’ very generously after that as if her mum’s ultimate delight lay in that word.

“If dad comes and says ‘sorry’,” Nancy asked one day, “will we live together again?”

Nancy missed dad, Sheetal knew.  Dad was very fond of her.  He was her playmate in the evenings and on holidays.  They would play with her toys.  She would climb on him, tickle him, pull his ears...  He would smother her with kisses...

Sheetal knew that Gaurav loved her too.  But he could never express it the way he did it with Nancy.  He was clumsy whenever he had to deal with adults.  And he concealed his clumsiness by creating an air of arrogance.

The arrogance hurt most of the time.  It was blatantly insensitive.  He blamed her for everything because of that arrogance.  His ego could never accept his own mistakes. 

If he dropped the glass from his computer table, she was at fault for not taking it away after he had finished drinking the water.  If the computer hanged it must be because she visited some “idiotic” site.  If he trampled on her toes, it was because she came and stood in the wrong place.

“At least once, once in your lifetime, can’t you say ‘sorry’?” she asked him once.  “I won’t talk to you unless you apologise.”  He had slapped her when she argued with him over the school he had chosen for Nancy.  She didn’t want that particular school which was meant for the upwardly mobile social classes who always loved to buy a better car than their neighbours.  His view was that his daughter should be proud of her school.   The argument started.  On the meaning of pride.  And ended in the slap.  A slap is the last word of the person who is incapable of carrying forward even an argument, let alone a discussion.

The apology never came.  But Sheetal forgave him, nevertheless.

Forgiveness has limits, however.  She had reached the end of the tether when she walked out with Nancy.

She knew Gaurav would miss Nancy.  She knew he wouldn’t be able to live long without her.

She was right. 

Gaurav came one Sunday.  With an abundance of Nancy’s favourite sweets and snacks.  And a bouquet of orchids for Sheetal. 

When Sheetal brought coffee for him, he was playing with Nancy and knocked the tray accidentally. 

“I’m sorry,” said Sheetal as she tried to balance the tray in her hands.

“Oh no, it’s my fault,” said Gaurav taking the tray from her hands.

What!  Did he say it really?  Sheetal looked at him.  Into his eyes.  He was looking into hers.  Did she see a new light in those eyes?  She thought she did.