I started off my prior review “I Read The Book Thief – Part 3, Chapters One-Four” with the following statement: “Hello, and welcome again! It’s good to be back. I apologize for the long delay. I hope to not keep you waiting nearly as long in the future (well, to the few people who actually care about these reviews), but there were matters in my personal life I had to attend to.”
Well, more than twice as many months down the line, all I can say is that hope doesn’t always pay off, clearly. I can’t explain the long absence, either. There were certainly many, many more complicated matters in my personal life, but also I am a very slow reader and I deliberately put it aside until I had finished several other books. At the moment I am only dividing my attentions between this and one other of the four books previously listed:
11/22/63 by Stephen King
I have to thank my few loyal commenters, though, for being so kind and patient in waiting. And we did leave off on a very suspenseful place, at least:
The house was pale, almost sick-looking, with an iron gate and a brown spit-stained door.
From his pocket, he pulled out the key. It did not sparkle but lay dull and limp in his hand. For a moment, he squeezed it, half expecting it to come leaking toward his wrist. It didn’t. The metal was hard and flat, with a healthy set of teeth, and he squeezed it till it pierced him.
Slowly, then, the struggler leaned forward, his cheek against the wood, and he removed the key from his fist.
I realize I’ve said this before, but for a book about Nazi Germany narrated by Death, this has been pretty peaceful and laid back so far. But now all that is about to change, as the realities of life for the oppressed during World War II are coming to the privileged Hubermanns and their world is about to be shaken up. I’m on the edge of my seat right now, eager to see the tension and conflict that will be sure to develop, because I don’t know where the book is going as we enter Part Four, titled “the standover man“.
This is obviously another book either stolen or at least obtained by Liesel, going by the trend, and I’m intrigued by the subtitles, right off the bat.
the accordionist – a promise keeper – a good girl – a jewish fist fighter – the wrath of rosa – a lecture – a sleeper – the swapping of nightmares – and some pages from the basement
Hans is the accordionist, I’m assuming Liesel is the “good girl”, the Jewish fist fighter is obviously Max, and the last four I have pretty well figured out. Rosa gets mad at Hans for whatever deals he made that got them into sheltering Max, she lectures Max, then Max goes to sleep, and he enjoys reading over some of Liesel’s books with her in the basement. The second one, “a promise keeper” probably refers to whatever promise Hans made to someone that has forced him into sheltering a Jew during World War II.
Well, probably. The only way to find out is by diving in and reading
(The Secret Life of Hans Hubermann)
Well, with a title like that, how can I not be intrigued to be absorbed back into this book’s world? And Zusak immediately throws us into the situation:
There was a young man standing in the kitchen. The key in his hand felt like it was rusting into his palm.
I did miss Markus Zusak’s writing so much. I love how truly palpable the tension is, primarily due to the fact that every slight action is over-dramatized to the maximum gravitas it can possibly achieve:
He didn’t speak anything like hello, or please help, or any other such expected sentence. He asked two questions.
*** QUESTION ONE ***
*** QUESTION TWO ***
“Do you still play the accordion?”
As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man’s voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him.
I’ve never read anything like this book. It is a true visionary in the art of writing. Especially as we proceed to abandon the present situation entirely for the rest of the chapter as Death steps in to tell the tale of what led up to this:
It all dated back many years, to World War I.
If there were times when one found it easy to forget that this book is narrated by Death, now we are certainly forced to remember. At the beginning of this fourth part, the grim, charmingly fatalistic Rod Serling-esque narration of a world half-full that we found in the book’s opening chapters has truly returned:
They’re strange, those wars.
Full of blood and violence-but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom. “It’s true,” people will mutter. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. It was that fox who saved my life,” or, “They died on either side of me and I was left standing there, the only one without a bullet between my eyes. Why me? Why me and not them?”
Since Zusak’s writing is so dominated by these idiosyncratic touches, I should acknowledge one idiosyncratic reading tendency I use. Whenever there is a break in a book dictated by an inch-long space (dictating scene/topic separations), I take it as an opportunity to momentarily pause my reading and then resume. (As a child I always insisted my aunt and father pause for a full minute whenever they encountered one of these breaks when reading to me.)
They were conspicuously absent from The Hunger Games trilogy, which I suppose made the tension more effective. But Zusak uses those mini-breaks constantly in this chapter, and it works very well to show Death unfolding the story in a very calm, easy manner, as it details Hans’ career in the army and muses over how he managed to escape Death.
I will make one criticism of Zusak’s writing here, though. Page 174 of my copy of the book ends with this passage:
In the army, [Hans] didn’t stick out at either end. He ran in the middle, climbed in the middle, and he could shoot straight enough so as not to affront his superiors. Nor did he excel enough to be one of the first chosen to run straight at me.
*** A SMALL BUT NOTEWORTHY NOTE ***
I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.
Since this is where the page stops, naturally I assumed this was the complete note. Ending there, it’s a very succinct, blackly comic aside that could only be delivered by our personal narrator. The point is delivered very well without explicitly spelling it out. Unfortunately, it goes on into the next page:
They are not.
They’re running at me.
I realize Zusak edited and re-drafted this book painstakingly and has described his constant search for perfection in writing, but I have to wonder: how in the world did he think that it was necessary to include those last two sentences? It’s right up there with Steve Kloves’ “She needs to sort out her priorities” line in the first Harry Potter screenplay in its absolute utter redundancy! Ugh!
The writing is much better from this point on, though, as he details Hans’ recollections, which sound exactly as if they came from the lips of any 70-something ‘Nam veteran who spends his Sundays smoking cigarettes with old buddies in his front garage reminiscing:
It was like a serial. Day after day after day. After day:
The conversation of bullets.
The best dirty jokes in the world.
Cold sweat – that malignant little friend – outstaying its welcome in the armpits and trousers.
I recognize that I have never served, but I think Markus Zusak just bested Goodnight Saigon and M*A*S*H for the best description of everyday life in the military. Congratulations.
I mean, the one thing people often find hardest to comprehend about those who managed to survive war is how they can look back fondly on it at all, let alone treat it as a happy bonding experience that allowed them to make good friends. Zusak explains this very well here, in a passage that also serves to explain the unascertained connection with Hans to Max:
It was a man a year older than himself – a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg – who taught him to play the accordion. The two of them gradually became friends due to the fact that neither of them was terribly interested in fighting. They preferred rolling cigarettes to rolling in snow and mud. They preferred shooting craps to shooting bullets. A firm friendship was built on gambling, smoking, and music, not to mention a shared desire for survival.
And that’s exactly why we all love you, Hans. XD
But the realities of war are, of course:
The only trouble with this was that Erik Vandenburg would later be found in several pieces on a grassy hill. His eyes were open and his wedding ring was stolen.
<JAW DROPS> Wow. I mean, WOW, JUST WOW! I am genuinely terrified for the moment when a character we actually care about dies. I mean, forget abrupt tonal change, this book is brutal with a capital B!
All that was really left of Erik Vandenburg was a few personal items and the fingerprinted accordion. Everything but the instrument was sent home. It was considered too big. Almost with self-reproach, it sat on his makeshift bed at the base camp and was given to his friend, Hans Hubermann, who happened to be the only man to survive.
*** HE SURVIVED LIKE THIS ***
He didn’t go into battle that day.
All right, I’m willing to forget what I said about the last one. That note is flawless, succinct perfection.
The theme all goes back to Death’s quote from the prologue: “Was it fate? Misfortune? Is that what glued them down like that? Of course not. Let’s not be stupid. It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.”
There isn’t always a strategy in life. A lot comes down to pure luck and happenstance, whether you like it or not.
The story that goes on to explain this, though, comes off as something out of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. I realize a lot of the appeal of this book comes from that Time quote I previously mentioned: “Zusak doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable… with grim, darkly consoling humor.”
And I lost count of how many times I chuckled in spite of myself at those little bits Zusak threw in this chapter to break up the darkness. But even so, I don’t know how I can even describe the story to you that explains why a sergeant excused Hans from battle that day it’s so ridiculous.
It doesn’t matter. This is what’s important:
Still no one stepped forward, but a voice stooped out and ambled toward the sergeant. It sat at his feet, waiting for a good kicking. It said, “Hubermann, sir.” The voice belonged to Erik Vandenburg. He obviously thought that today wasn’t the appropriate time for his friend to die.
You see, the sergeant just has this reputation for asking for strange requirements from his recruits, then when they speak up, they’re immediately assigned to various dehumanizing activities. It’s obviously a petty thing to do in the middle of war, but in this case, it’s the only thing that saved Hans’ life.
Erik Vandenburg just demonstrated the ultimate devotion to a friend he hasn’t known all that long but has made these past months so much more bearable by ensuring he stays out of the deadly battle the rest of the troop has to enter, perhaps knowing he would never come back alive and certainly knowing that if Hans stood up himself, he would be ostracized as the coward that his own son believes him to be more than twenty years later.
The sergeant sighed. “The captain needs a few dozen letters written for him. He’s got terrible rheumatism in his fingers. Or arthritis. You’ll be writing them for him.”
This was no time to argue, especially when Schlink was sent to clean the toilets and the other one, Pflegger, nearly killed himself licking envelopes. His tongue was infection blue.
“Yes, sir.” Hans nodded, and that was the end of it. His writing ability was dubious to say the least, but he considered himself lucky. He wrote the letters as best he could while the rest of the men went into battle.
None of them came back.
So Hans Hubermann really is a remarkably lucky man. This becomes even more clear as Death gives us a remarkably significant spoiler!
That was the first time Hans Hubermann escaped me. The Great War.
A second escape was still to come, in 1943, in Essen.
………………. ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. what what what I’m sorry just
I’m trying to hold myself together here. I still regret how much I lost control of the critical-analysis train (to see the least) at the end of Part One. So I am just going to write one paragraph below and you can all ignore it, then we’ll get back to analytical commentary.
HANS HUBERMANN IS GOING TO ALMOST DIE THREE YEARS FROM NOW AND DEATH JUST TOLD US THIS WITH ABSOLUTELY NO WARNING. WHAT I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS GOOD
What’s most shocking is that the random flash-forward we got before makes suddenly more sense, and I don’t think Zusak is an author who will throw red herrings at us. The flashback wasn’t just to 1943, it was specifically September! Either Hans already had a near-death experience by that point or he came close to death within the next three and a half months. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And I’ve said before that Zusak wastes next to no words and I know the editing was insanely thorough. So I’m pointing to this line, “He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be
” as evidence that Hans was wounded in an explosion or he was shot and plaster was in his wound but it has now been removed. I’d say this is going to keep me on the edge of my seat for all of 1943, but for all I know Death might just come out and tell me what happens to Hans in the next chapter. This is so much worse than Rowling I can’t do much but shake my head in disbelief.
The one good conclusion I’m going to draw from this is that I may not have to worry about Hans dying in the war, after all. Unless he dies in the next two years, of all. And for all we know, Zusak will probably have him step on a grenade on January 1, 1944. Sigh.
The real point one can make from all this is how perfectly Zusak’s work loops around and gets back to itself, explaining what came previously, no matter how long it takes. And, even though it was clear already at this point, Hans pays a visit to his friend’s widow at the end of the war, makes a useless offer to paint her house in an attempt to make up for her loss, and meets her son.
“This is Max,” the woman said, but the boy was too young and shy to say anything. He was skinny, with soft hair, and his thick, murky eyes watched as the stranger played one more song in the heavy room. From face to face, he looked on as the man played and the woman wept. The different notes handled her eyes. Such sadness.
It gets worse. Guess what Hans is playing for them on his accordion? The passage came earlier, but here it is:
“He taught me to play,” Hans informed her, as though it might help.
Perhaps it did, for the devastated woman asked if he could play it for her, and she silently wept as he pressed the buttons and keys of a clumsy “Blue Danube Waltz.” It was her husband’s favorite.
I’m speechless. I said it before, but Death is literally writing this book and aiming everything specifically at me. I have never been a big classical music lover, but there is one word I will say about The Blue Danube Waltz:
2001. My favorite film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece saying so much with not a word in five gorgeous minutes of pure wonder at how far man has come, for better or worse, from the primitive apes who found it a remarkable victory to exercise any control over their barren landscape dominated by predators to the conquerors of outer space, the limits to which are unknown and nearly incomprehensible to most to this day, and dwarf the human beings themselves in its vast bitter emptiness. I have watched that sequence alone from the film on too many dark nights before bed to count, and I can’t even begin to explain here how much that piece has meant to me in consequence.
And Erik, Erik, you never imagined it, not close. I almost get teary-eyed just thinking of it (I will repeat quietly, almost).
Perhaps surprisingly, the chapter goes on for another six pages from here to detail Hans’ dislike for the Nazi party and his unpleasant history with the local officials. His reasoning for not joining is surprising in that it displays only a bit of his personal backstory. It primarily just shows his virtues as a human being, the way I suspected. Whether that’s disappointing or not I’ll leave to you, but I will quote the specific note here because it is rather heartwarming in its simplicities:
*** THE THOUGHT PROCESS OF ***
He was not well-educated or political, but if
nothing else, he was a man who appreciated
fairness. A Jew had once saved his life and
he couldn’t forget that. He couldn’t join a
party that antagonized people in such a way.
Also, much like Alex Steiner, some of his
most loyal customers were Jewish. Like many
of the Jews believed, he didn’t think the
hatred could last, and it was a conscious
decision not to follow Hitler. On many
levels, it was a disastrous one.
At first the problem only seems to be that he is losing customers once word gets out that he isn’t a party member. But he eventually actually applies to join and then things get much worse.
After lodging his form at the Nazi headquarters on Munich Street, he witnessed four men throw several bricks into a clothing store named Kleinmann’s. It was one of the few Jewish shops that were still in operation in Molching.
Naturally Hans, being the kind person that he is, offers to help the owner clean up, but surprisingly the owner actually shows a great deal of empathy for Hans in urging him not to. And Hans shockingly makes the terrible decision of actually trying to go back on his membership application, before he abruptly realizes this is a big mistake and backs down.
This reminds me of similar scenes in The Incredibles when Bob Parr has to face the anger of his boss over attempting to genuinely help his clients deal with insurance claims, while simultaneously allowing them to bypass bureaucratic loopholes that aim for maximum profit for the corporation, not the customers. It’s an idea that could be very eyerolling, but I think both that film and The Book Thief pull it off very well in making the character seem like a genuinely good person who is doing it out of a deep-seated desire for justice, and it’s very interesting to see the reality of an individual being punished for daring to break from the conformist mindset, as authority-mandated herd mentality too often prevails in real life.
And from there his luck seems to suddenly run out:
The door at Kleinmann’s Clothing was still moist with dew. Hans dried it. He managed to match the color as close as humanly possible and gave it a good solid coat.
Innocuously, a man walked past.
“Heil Hitler,” he said.
“Heil Hitler,” Hans replied.
*** THREE SMALL BUT ***
1. The man who walked past was Rolf Fischer, one of
Molching’s greatest Nazis.
2. A new slur was painted on the door
within sixteen hours.
3. Hans Hubermann was not granted
membership in the Nazi Party.
Not yet, anyway.
The last line is very telling, in that Death is going out of its way to hint at future events in the story, but without directly telling us what will happen. And this gives us a subtle and foreboding clue, too:
Toward the end of 1938, when the Jews were cleared out completely after Kristallnacht, the Gestapo visited. They searched the house, and when nothing or no one suspicious was found, Hans Hubermann was one of the fortunate:
He was allowed to stay.
But one can only hope the Gestapo doesn’t search his house again now that he has something or some one suspicious to hide, right? All right, I’m going to make my prediction: Hans will be accepted, the Nazis will hold a meeting at his house, and Max will be found but we probably won’t find out until later. And this will probably happen in 1943, so Hans will likely almost die and have plaster stuck in his leg, then, too.
The chapter ends with the story coming full circle. Death now reveals that it was on June 16, 1939 that Hans was approached by Kugler at work, was asked if he could keep a promise, and subsequently made plans to talk later at night.
Going back to Part One, the chapter “The Other Side of Sandpaper” described the events of late May 1939 in which Hans watched a NSDAP parade on the footpath in Munich Street and “wore a face with the shades pulled down“. It was then that Death mentioned his lack of support for Hitler, and gave no information beyond saying there was a reason which he has just detailed to us at length now. The chapter also mentioned Liesel writing in her journal in 1943: “People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion…”
But in the following chapter, which takes place “over the next few weeks and into summer” presumably shortly after Hans was contacted by Kugler, we got this, which makes so much more sense in hindsight:
Hans pulled out the accordion. Liesel looked at him and listened, though she did not immediately notice the perplexed expression on her papa’s face that evening as he played.
*** PAPA’S FACE ***
It traveled and wondered,
but it disclosed no answers.
There had been a change in him. A slight shift.
She saw it but didn’t realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didn’t see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermann’s accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story.
For now, there was only the one as far as Liesel was concerned, and she was enjoying it.
That really does sum up the appeal of the writing. Zusak uses more than just spoilers the likes of which an internet troll could deliver. This book is a masterful, well-woven tapestry that folds perfectly over and into itself. Zusak knows exactly what is going to happen, and he parcels out information to build the tension, telling us certain things ahead of time and keeping us waiting to explain other information. And that’s why it’s so much fun to go back through the book and realize how shockingly much we were told ahead of time. And now we appear to have everything well explained to us, and it’s only a question of what will happen in 1943.
In case you can’t tell, I really love reading this book. XD
A GOOD GIRL
This is a particularly brief chapter, only 2 pages long in fact. It does return us right back to the immediate situation, however.
In November 1940, when Max Vandenburg arrived in the kitchen of 33 Himmel Street, he was twenty-four years old.
Which is devastating that someone so young should have to experience this mindless hatred. And I honestly imagined him as a man in his forties or early fifties, probably because I didn’t want to be reminded of what Liesel suffered at a much younger age.
The rest of the chapter is primarily based on capturing the emotions of the characters. Max is emotionally desperate, cold, and terrified, and he simply doesn’t know how to respond to the idea that he might be safe. He just collapses, overwhelmed by where he is and what is to come.
But Liesel has even less an idea of what to make of this scene:
Max stood up, like a struck match. The darkness swelled now, around him.
“Everything’s fine, Liesel,” Papa said. “Go back to bed.”
If anything, this chapter is a fine example of minimalism. Hans has to make vague unsatisfying reassurance for both his foster daughter and his dead friend’s son and Liesel goes to bed wondering what can possibly be going on while Max stays up trying to work out with Hans what will come next.
The chapter is very restrained and distant, as if setting up much more to follow. It’s very noticeable Rosa is inexplicably not present, because obviously if she were here this would be a much more dramatic, extroverted scene. Which does bother me, because it’s obvious now Hans kept this whole thing a secret from not only his foster daughter, but his own wife as well. I get he didn’t want to endanger Max’s safety or make his family concerned, but did he not foresee that Max could end up staying with them? How long has Hans been notified of this, and failed to tell anyone?
One wild card was yet to be played.
Clearly, still so many answers are yet to come…….
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE JEWISH FIST FIGHTER
And as you can imagine from the title, we proceed to get more of them in the form of further abandonment of the central narrative to deliver more backstory, this time obviously from the side of Max Vandenburg.
I’m going to take the opportunity here to discuss something I have been ignoring. One of my commenters brought this up, but I never mentioned it myself. The Book Thief was adapted into a movie in 2013. I find myself extremely wary of this film for many reasons, mostly because I simply do not feel this would translate well to a film at all. So much of it, right down to the very title, gets its appeal from the way a book is constructed, right down to the fact that the very title suggests that love of books.
I don’t see how the writing which communicates Death’s unique perspective could translate to film. As I said in my Secret Garden (1949)
review, “films suffer due to not being able to employ prose (and thus limiting your range to a smaller variety of story-telling techniques).”
A very good example lies here, as what follows is ten pages of sheer backstory and exposition designed to set up the plot. I think it would be very difficult for a film to get away with bringing the momentum of a film to an abrupt halt like this. Exposition is one of the most difficult aspects of a film to pull off, which may be why it was severely streamlined to the point of being left out in many of the Harry Potter film adaptations. I would argue this was at the expense of narrative logic (but I had a disagreement with one of my commenters recently on this issue), but the audience might sit still for some of the absolute essentials, a movie couldn’t really get away with getting bogged down in the specifics and it would need to get the point across with a fast pace, basically on autopilot, unless it wanted to change the focus of the entire film. (I would be interested to hear exceptions or insight about this in film from my commenters, of course.)
The chapter starts by simply describing Max’s history with fist fighting as a child at length (that detail that Zusak actually allowed us to know about him long before we got his name even). This can become wearying, until the purpose becomes immediately obvious in what it reveals of Max’s character:
Just when it was getting interesting, both boys were hauled away by their collars. A watchful parent.
A trickle of blood was dripping from Max’s mouth.
He tasted it, and it tasted good.
This is especially noteworthy considering how weak, terrified, and defenseless Max has always appeared to come across and view himself as in the text, but as we can see, Max is more than prepared for physical confrontation. But of course this can give him no help against a threat coming from the central government. Death gives us the impression at first that these fights Max had were basically a product of his neighborhood, but then shows us this was not true in a passage that also qualifies as a beautiful bait-and-switch:
Not many people who came from his neighborhood were fighters, and if they were, they didn’t do it with their fists. In those days, they said the Jews preferred to simply stand and take things. Take the abuse quietly and then work their way back to the top. Obviously, every Jew is not the same.
I literally was caught off guard by the last two sentences. They are amazing in what abrupt change of tone creeps in, as it’s one of the first times Death expresses actual emotion and anger at human beings, although we have had glimpses of this sort of bitter sarcasm.
Death then goes on for a while to just give a general overview of Max’s life, until his uncle dies when he is 13. It’s here that in addition to further developing Max’s character, the book actually feels overwhelming and brutal even to read as I got the full sense of the mysterious ethereal force known as the Grim Reaper communicating these words:
As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.
Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes, and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.
The man’s face was so accepting.
So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull-the endless jawline, stretching for miles; the pop-up cheekbones; and the pothole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.
Where’s the fight? he wondered.
Where’s the will to hold on?
All this backstory proves useful as I genuinely got the full weight of this scene, and felt like I was in there with the young Max in 1929 just as I was there with Liesel having been beaten by her foster mother into a bloody pulp on the kitchen floor and realizing she will never see her biological mother again. It’s shocking to read, but children do so often lack empathy and the capacity to really grasp and appreciate human emotions and the full magnitude of what they’re seeing at this early age.
I said it before and I will say it again: I don’t think I could have handled reading this book as a very young child. When I was this age, at random intervals I became terrified and violently overwhelmed by the knowledge that I would one day die and that this state would last for all of eternity. I remember, aged about 6-7, meeting my great-grandfather face-to-face when he was around 92-93 years old and asking him if he was afraid to die. I can still see him smiling and saying, “No,” and the great conviction that he considered it such a silly, frivolous question to ask. When he did die it was by all accounts this same scene, peaceful, surrounded by his sons and one grandson, gasping with his last breath “going up to Marian”. I’m glad I wasn’t there, though, but unlike Max, I don’t think I could have handled it.
As I’ve said before I went to my step-grandfather’s funeral 2 years ago. His death came with no warning after being put in a nursing home for a fall. I thought before that that those who work in funeral homes must inevitably see those around them as but living corpses, but looking at my Papaw I got the singular impression this would not be possible, that flesh without intelligence is but a hollow waxwork figure, absolutely meaningless. A woman I had never known silently intoned “We are all going to meet our maker, and none of us knows when it will happen, or even if we will live to the end of the day.” If it had been anyone else I would have been too sick for words by the full emotional detachment spread from a life in a dark industry cooled by the desperate unflinching belief in the inevitable and the lack of empathy towards any who share even religious doubt at what emotional effect this might have, but this man had been all but dead for years, pouring cigarette smoke and alcohol into his diabetes-riddled body every Saturday that I did see him and going without speaking primarily except to close friends.
And if you desire that cool apathetic detachment I will recount to you my mother’s words as I lay overwhelmed on a couch in a side room: “He was 57, and he did not take care of himself at all.” She spoke them gently as if they were the most comforting bits of wisdom imaginable.
Zusak perfects the art of subtlety in this next passage, to a certain degree:
“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist on his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
I like that a lot.
My reaction was always, of course, the simple amazement that people will go on living when they know it will one day end, that there is no widespread panic in the streets and how that could possibly be. I figured out why when I was 16 years old in the park after hours with a stool to peek through the windows. Not a good position to be in, and when you run away, it’s all too easy to find yourself tackled and your head thrown into the ground by a fully-grown man proclaimed by those intelligent people known as the American citizens to be our chief officers responsible for enforcing justice, this situation meaning nothing to them but the paltriest misdemeanor and the faintest fun to have on a quiet Friday night.
I, knowing full well those stories on the news, expected to be beaten violently, perhaps to have my head kicked in and tazered until I knew not what pain meant, and maybe killed afterwards, maybe even in the same second with a quick bullet to the head. None of this happened, of course, but I can tell you I didn’t fear it. Endless paranoia, terror, and misery at what might happen, what will happen, but not one peep for what is happening, what one can do not one single thing about. How could you?
Anyway, from there, Death goes on to detail to us at great length Walter’s relationship with Kugler from fist-fighting rivalry to eventual friendship. This goes on a bit too long in my opinion, but does build up to this:
“Jesus,” Walter said one evening, when they met on the small corner where they used to fight. “That was a time, wasn’t it? There was none of this craziness around. We could never fight like that now.”
Max disagreed. “Yes we could. You can’t marry a Jew, but there’s no law against fighting one.”
Walter smiled. “There’s probably a law rewarding it- as long as you win.”
It’s the kind of thing you can really only treat as a joke with very close friends, isn’t it?
And from here the story’s momentum builds very quickly.
Then came November 9. Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass.
It was the very incident that destroyed so many of his fellow Jews, but it proved to be Max Vandenburg’s moment of escape. He was twenty-two.
The scene that follows I find confusing. Max’s family are hiding in their apartment on this night and then there’s a lot of build-up to them being forced to open the door to a uniformed Nazi.
This seems like a serious threat, but then it seems to be glossed over and the next bit is very rushed through as Max is shoved into the adjoining room and the world suddenly seems to revolve around him as everyone immediately begins discussing plans to have him in particular moved to a safe hiding location.
Okay, first of all, what exactly was the Nazi’s purpose in pounding on their door? I really wish I knew more of the history behind this time period,
because this comes off as a serious threat but then the Nazi is completely ignored and we don’t even hear about him doing anything after the front door is opened for him. I feel like a complete idiot, but the book feels strangely edited here and moving a bit too quickly to move the plot forward to Max getting smuggled away.
“Max.” It was his mother.
From a drawer, she took an old piece of paper and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “If ever…” She held him one last time, by the elbows. “This could be your last hope.”
So the story comes back to Max stuck in the hell-hole of an empty storeroom (one of Kugler’s former workplaces) hiding from persecution for 2 years. As for the rest of his family…..
The remaining Jews with money in the neighborhood were emigrating. The Jews without money were also trying, but without much success. Max’s family fell into the latter category. Walter checked on them occasionally, as inconspicuously as he could. One afternoon, when he visited, someone else opened the door.
When Max heard the news, his body felt it was being screwed up into a ball, like a page littered with mistakes. Like garbage.
That is disturbing just in how little is stated. So I’m guessing the assumption is Max’s entire family was KILLED? Or just moved off to a concentration camp? (For someone whose favorite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m surprisingly poor on the ambiguity front.)
But at least for Max, as Death already points out:
We already know what was written on that piece of paper:
*** ONE NAME, ONE ADDRESS ***
Himmel Street 33, Molching
Although Kugler and Max are both rather amusingly concerned Hans may be a Nazi, it becomes clear this was all Hans’ plan. Hans agreed to uphold his promise to his friend’s widow when he met with Kugler in 1939 and gave him money. And he then proceeded to give him a map pointing out the direct route from the train station to his front door!
I find myself a bit confused as to why Death seemed to be taunting Hans about his plans backfiring if Max coming to live with them was all part of the plan, but I think the idea is that Hans was not considering the reality of this situation and Death was pointing out that in 7 months he would realize how dangerous this plan had become that seemed so perfect in my mind. I still wonder if they were planning to have Max moved somewhere else or just keep him indefinitely, but I’ll leave it at that.
With another wonderful bit of insight from Death, (“You don’t always get what you wish for. Especially in Nazi Germany“) our story comes full circle and we’re back right where we left off.
Walter was notified that he was being sent to Poland, to continue the assertion of Germany’s authority over both the Poles and Jews alike. One was not much better than the other. The time had come.
Max made his way to Munich and Molching, and now he sat in a stranger’s kitchen, asking for the help he craved and suffering the condemnation he felt he deserved.
No, Max, you really are underestimating the wonders of Hans Hubermann. But on the other hand, Zusak finally took one of my other primary questions about this scene into account.
The girl had been gone quite a while, but now some more footsteps had approached arrival. The wildcard.
In the darkness, all three of them were completely isolated. They all stared. Only the woman spoke.
It’s an amazingly atmospheric ending that leaves us immediately dreading what we almost know is going to come next. And it’s difficult not to gulp as we see this all but confirmed in the title of the following chapter:
THE WRATH OF ROSA
And we begin with the perfect set-up as Liesel awakens again to hear:
“Was ist los?“
Curiosity got the better of her then, as she imagined a tirade thrown down from the wrath of Rosa. There was definite movement and the shuffle of a chair.
But Markus Zusak expertly plays up the tension to what I will only describe as a bait-and-switch the likes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to make a more lighthearted comparison.
After ten minutes of excruciating discipline, Liesel made her way to the corridor, and what she saw truly amazed her, because Rosa Hubermann was at Max Vandenburg’s shoulder, watching him gulp down her infamous pea soup. Candlelight was standing at the table. It did not waver.
Mama was grave.
Her plump figure glowed with worry.
Unbelievable. This reaction from her is just absolutely jawdropping, and yet it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in real life. We think we know a person so well and then they turn around and do something so unexpected we can’t make any sense out of it.
I can’t even count how many times and how many people this has happened to me with, and I still can’t make complete sense of it there, but looking back on it this isn’t truly out of character for Rosa after all. Almost as soon as she’s being established as a presence in Liesel’s life Death goes out of his way to tell us that she does love Liesel despite it all. And I thought that was shocking then, there, too!
Really, her most unlikable moment was beating Liesel unmercilessly with a spoon, and even after that we see her apologize and show genuine sympathy when she realizes why Liesel had been breaking the rules.
Somehow, though, there was also a look of triumph on her face, and it was not the triumph of having saved another human being from persecution. It was something more along the lines of, See? At least he’s not complaining. She looked from the soup to the Jew to the soup.
When she spoke again, she asked only if he wanted more.
Max declined, preferring instead to rush to the sink and vomit.
Okay, seriously, who says Holocaust novels can’t be hilarious? Because I seriously couldn’t stop laughing the first time I read this. Just, no kidding.
This chapter ends on an absolutely genuine note, though:
Liesel, from the hallway, could see the drawn face of the stranger, and behind it, the worried expression scribbled like a mess onto Mama. She looked at both her foster parents.
Who were these people?
There comes a moment where you really have to ask how much you’re willing to risk and for what cost. It all goes back to my suggestion in my first review of this book that “This is obviously a very cruel world we’re dealing with. Zusak has made that clear”, which has clearly turned out to be far too naive a statement. It could be said of J.K. Rowling’s isolated world of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy, definitely, but I should have expected this because again, I’m a Mad Men megafan and I don’t care less what characters are like as long as they’re interesting and multi-faceted, but I also find I don’t have a clue how other people will react to anything. My aunt just quit re-reading The Casual Vacancy and gave me back my copy because she told me she couldn’t stand spending time with such loathsome people. So it’s just to be expected, considering how extremely more popular this book is, to say the least!
I wouldn’t be surprised if Markus Zusak made the tone so multi-faceted fearing the alienated reaction from people otherwise. It’s the same tactic I believe Steven Spielberg used in Schindler’s List, though I never actually saw that film. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether it’s truly realistic. As Lexie Mollison would say, in the words of Neitzsche philosophy is the biography of the philosopher and what not. I can see it.
And….. those were 2 short chapters, weren’t they? Sandwiched between 2 long chapters of exposition and backstory. Like I said, the book really is slow-paced, but this gave us information well-worth knowing and I’m eager to see what happens now that this new phase of the story has been set up. See you all next time.
This post is dedicated to Becky and Caitlin Glimco.