Monday, February 2, 2009

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

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If I had bothered to read the back of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief before opening it, I would have known it was about, among other things, "some fanatical Germans" right around, oh, 1939. Living in Germany, of course I find German history (and literature set in that history) particularly interesting, so although this book was recommended - and loaned - to me by a good English friend in the area without a hint of the contents, I enjoyed it.

But it got me thinking: Is setting a story in Nazi Germany really worth it? Is it really such a ripe time and place for a good tale? Or is it time (without meaning it the least bit insensitively) to get over it, to move on, and come up with something else?

I will never advocate forgetting the past, especially when it so recently contains one of the greatest atrocities against life and liberty and dignity of all time. There are good reasons why the name "Germany" still has so many associations abroad, and I knew before moving overseas that the subject of National Socialism was still a bit touchy here, even if it were more easily discussed than at any time since 1945. Even if they can make a parody of "The Office" with all the employees as ranking Nazis, it's still not a good idea to tell Hitler jokes in the bar, and one ought to be careful how he raises his hand around a group of students. (That was an unfortunate accident.)

In the United States, and presumably elsewhere in the world, too many people think that Germans are all still Nazis, and that they are all blond-haired and blue-eyed (and damn superior about it, too), and that the language is nasty and harsh. Americans, or any other people, leaving their home country to come to Germany should not have to field questions before leaving about why they are going to hang out with Nazis. But they often do. While there might be two world wars to blame for much of that, the way in which Germans-as-Nazis are portrayed in western - particularly cinematic - storytelling hasn't helped the case of understanding Germany as an important member of Europe and the world today, and its people are the ones who catch the effects of these stereotypes. We have so many Sound of Music-type stories, where innocent-enough people escape from the evil Germans (rather than the evil Nazi regime, which is a terribly critical distinction), that these stereotypes often become a large part of our cultural attitude about all Germans.

I say, we have enough of those kinds of stories.

But The Book Thief is not one of those kinds of stories. It differentiates between the Germans who did not support the ideas of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party, and the Germans who did. (And just because someone joined the Party did not mean he supported it - it often meant he had some sense of survival for him and his family.) It tells its readers that, hey, by no means were all the Germans evil. Some were misled. Some were unfortunate. And they can all be grouped together about as well as any other group of people in history - that is to say, not at all.

Perhaps this movement has been going on longer than I realize, and perhaps I just have not read the right books or seen the right films to recognize it. But there seems to be a certain desire in recent years to portray the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s who were not Nazis - in essence, to say that the terms "German" and "Nazi" are anything but synonymous. I see it in The Book Thief. I see it in the recently-released Tom Cruise film Valkyrie. And I've seen it elsewhere.

We need more of those kinds of stories. World War II-era Germany may be overused as a setting, but it had a lot of true stories to tell, of the kind that reveal humanity at its darkest and, therefore, at its strongest. And where there are so many true stories to tell, there are even more fictional ones.

Of course there were atrocities that happened in and because of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, and those stories must be remembered. But we owe it to our own understanding of history to try to see that country and its people, at that time, in a proper light. Then we will be able to see that country, at this time, in the light it has earned. Accomplishing such an end means pointing out that, just as in every period of human history, there were good people there who did what they could to help other human beings in just about the tightest circumstances imaginable.
In making the links for this post, I see that categorizes The Book Thief as a young adult book, which explains my opinion of the often-simple prose. This book could have been a lot darker, and possibly more complex, had it been intended for an adult audience. But I think any of you could read it and get something out of it. One of the worst disservices you can do yourself is to avoid a book simply because of its categorization.

1 comment:

  1. I think it is becoming a trend lately to see this sort of genre emerge: "The other side of the story" or "Those who were guilty by association." I almost put those in all capitals because that's how they're represented!

    There are so many books that I've read that I love which are classified as "young adult." Sometimes, those are among the best books because I feel like they're more original and not as constrained to certain mass market genres.