While far from being as offensively bad as its companion in the Holocaust YA shelf, the Striped Pajamas shitfest, the Book Thief is not exempt from dumb simplification. I’m mightily annoyed by this brand of pseudo-wisdom:
“I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men. They are not. They’re running at me.”
So says the narrator, Death, in one of its more harmless cameos in world literature, to introduce a WWI anecdote. This evokes the image of a soldier who fails to notice the corpses in the trenches. Heck, they were young, but I bet they could tell the difference between war and a rugby match. The choice of narrator is questionable- I feel it accentuates the flaws, rather than serve as the interesting device it should have been, given the period.
That said, the book has a lot of things going for it. The story is worth being told. The power of words- it is a wonderful theme. The characters are endearing, and the plot can hold its own. I’m very fond of Rosa and I can’t imagine why anybody would dislike Hans, Rudi and Liesel. The little anecdotes about football, the accordeon, are very entertaining. Of course, I’ve been reading it in german, and that makes me impervious to style. I’m willing to believe that the original is not as cutesy as the abundance of short and verbless sentences suggests. I don’t enjoy the lists; I don’t understand list-makers, and I certainly don’t see why Death should be one of them. Or why he should be so fond of synesthesiæ.
I’m also wary of YA with war-driven plots; I disliked that aspect in Hunger Games, Harry Potter and I dislike it here, specially in its depiction of WWI. In war one should be too busy shitting one’s pants and trying to dry one’s boots and kill off one’s vermin to be busy making memories. It’s not YA stuff. The book falls flat when it’s talking politics- the number of deaths in WWII, Stalin’s URSS, that he compares with unpleasant projects in the office; I won’t go so far as to call it callous but I do think it’s tasteless. Also, perhaps because I was reading it so slowly and struggling with the language, the short sentences that he uses every time he wants to invest something with particular pathos kind of made me feel like I was been bludgeoned in the head by someone screaming “FEEL! FEEL! FEEL!”.
Likewise, the first token jew-march reads like an essay for school “imagine what they might be feeling, etc.” This theme just doesn’t leave much room for genre allowances.
Curiously, the german version changes the aryan shopkeeper’s name and more than half of the interjected german words of the original version. I suppose the translator esteemed they weren’t correct or didn’t fit the situation. Lazy editing there.
Markus Zusak can handle very well the story of a little girl who loves books, but he doesn’t have what it takes to tackle death, war and nazi germany, especially at the excruciatingly slow pace of me reading german.