I don’t suppose there’s any point in commenting on the long delay between posts at this point, so all I will say is that a lot has been going on in my personal life, a lot, too much to even begin to summarize and explain here, and to be honest, I almost forgot about reviewing this book. But things are finally back to as “status quo” as they’re ever going to get.
So the only thing to do is to say how glad I am to wash the bad taste of that J.K. Rowling miniseries out of my mouth. For once, I have some real enthusiasm for what I’m reviewing, so perhaps posts will be regular from now on.
The book has finally reached its central conflict, so to speak. The Hubermanns are a privileged German family whose lives are now going to be thrown into upheaval by the addition of one who is unprivileged to their lives.
And it’s only fitting that Death begins our next chapter by musing about simply why anyone would do that. In a world that can so often be dominated by self-interest and apathy, why would two people willingly make their lives so difficult?
Exactly what kind of people Hans and Rosa Hubermann were was not the easiest problem to solve. Kind people? Ridiculously ignorant people? People of questionable sanity?
What was easier to define was their predicament.
*** THE SITUATION OF HANS AND ROSA HUBERMANN ***
Very sticky indeed.
In fact, frightfully sticky.
This is what I like most about Zusak’s writing, that he can make the most serious of situations seem humorous in the childlike simplicity of Death’s musings. It makes sense, too, as he finds humanity so difficult to understand that of course he feels the need to state things like this out loud.
When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you’re likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. Each plays its part, and each leads to a sneaking suspicion that a less than heavenly consequence awaits. The fear is shiny. Ruthless in the eyes.
The surprising point to make is that despite this iridescent fear glowing as it did in the dark, they somehow resisted the urge for hysteria.
But what’s refreshing is that interspersed with complex metaphors, he also manages effective visualization through very simple descriptions like these:
She could only just make out the shape of Hans Hubermann’s tallness in the dark.
It was Papa again, talking this time to Max.
The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. Such was his feeling of shame. “Yes. Thank you.”
In any case, we get a vivid portrait of all of the central characters’ emotions as Max settles down to sleep in Liesel’s room for the night, and Liesel is kept awake simply trying to figure out what’s going on and how their lives will be changed.
Fittingly enough, after she, the titular character, was lost in the backstory and exposition up to this point, most of the chapter focuses on her and how she is introduced to these changes. She is kept home from school under the pretense that she’s sick, and after going through “a kind of bemused, inaugural silence” at the breakfast table, Hans calls her down into the basement and explains the situation. Details like this help us see the scene clearly through Liesel’s perspective:
“Liesel,” he said quietly, “I was never sure if any of this would happen, so I never told you. About me. About the man upstairs.” He walked from one end of the basement to the other, the lamplight magnifying his shadow. It turned him into a giant on the wall, walking back and forth…..
They faced the wall.
Dark shapes and the practice of words.
As humorously as Death stated the situation before, Hans now makes it clear just how little the consequences of what they’re doing can be treated lightly:
“Liesel, if you tell anyone about the man up there, we will all be in big trouble.” He walked the fine line of scaring her into oblivion and soothing her enough to keep her calm. He fed her the sentences and watched with his metallic eyes. Desperation and placidity. “At the very least, Mama and I will be taken away.”
And from there, Zusak marks perhaps his second instance of portraying Hans in a morally gray light, inspired by his need to protect Liesel and Max from the dangers in the world they live in.
He gave her a list of consequences.
“For starters,” he said, “I will take each and every one of your books – and I will burn them.” It was callous. “I’ll throw them in the stove or the fireplace.”
I like scenes like this because it shows that Hans, for all his kindness, does function as an effective authority figure when needs serve. It bothers me that Death keeps jumping over backwards in the narrative to defend Hans (Hans was clearly worried that he was on the verge of frightening her too much, but he calculated the risk, preferring to err on the side of too much fear rather than not enough. The girl’s compliance had to be an absolute, immutable fact….He was certainly acting like a tyrant, but it was necessary.), but it helps that the situation portrayed is genuinely heart-rending.
“They’ll take you away from me. Do you want that?”
She was crying now, in earnest. “Nein.”
“Good.” His grip on her hand tightened. “They’ll drag that man out there away, and maybe Mama and me, too – and we will never, ever come back.”
And that did it.
The girl began to sob so uncontrollably that Papa was dying to pull her into him and hug her tight. He didn’t. Instead, he squatted down and watched her directly in the eyes. He unleashed his quietest words so far. “Vertehst du mich?” Do you understand me?”
The girl nodded. She cried, and now defeated, broken, her papa held her in the painted air and the kerosene light.
The chapter ends with Death summing things up with that perfectly succinct childlike simplicity:
Everything was good.
But it was awful, too.
This is another short chapter at only two pages long. But it provides a good bit of character contrast and delivers on the tone of its predecessor by taking us right back into the perspective of Liesel as she watches Max sleep for three days, regarding him as some sort of strange insect that has invaded their lives.
This is something I can relate to personally, because after my stepmother moved in with me it took me a long time to adjust and I would watch her speaking Khmer on the phone, reflecting that I never understood what went on in her mind.
The chapter then takes us into Max’s perspective, though, as we get a very personal look at his mental state:
Isaac. Aunt Ruth. Sarah. Mama. Walter. Hitler.
Family, friend, enemy.
They were all under the covers with him, and at one point, he appeared to be struggling with himself.
Zusak then brings these two perspectives together by illustrating once again how, in spite of all, alike the two really are:
Liesel, in the act of watching, was already noticing the similarities between this stranger and herself. They both arrived in a state of agitation on Himmel Street. They both nightmared.
Not that this makes for a more pleasant encounter when they do inevitably come face-to-face.
The stranger reached out, his bed-warmed hand taking her by the forearm.
His voice also held on, as if possessing fingernails. He pressed it into her flesh.
Not the best of first meetings, but things can only get better from here, right? As Hans interrupts the two, we get a tentative acknowledgment that these two will have to live together for a while:
Max’s fingers started cooling.
THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES
The book’s pace slows even further now as we get a glimpse into how everyday life with Max and the Hubermanns begins to function. The book’s perspective remains firmly on Max as he requests to live in the basement
to prevent any more conflict with Liesel and Hans helps him set a spot up.
The basement was the only place for him as far as he was concerned. Forget the cold and the loneliness. He was a Jew, and if there was one place he was destined to exist, it was a basement or any other such hidden venue of survival.
What’s worse is that, as it goes on, Max seems to be more and more self-loathing. Rather than resenting the Hubermanns for being privileged, he resents himself for being unprivileged and inconveniencing them. He almost seems to believe the propaganda Hitler spreads about him!
For Max Vandenburg, those were the two most pitiful words he could possibly say, rivaled only by I’m sorry. There was a constant urge to speak both expressions, spurred on by the affliction of guilt.
Zusak goes on, like a poet, delicately describing every facet of Max’s existential angst and inner desperation:
He wanted to walk out-Lord, how he wanted to (or at least he wanted to want to)-but he knew he wouldn’t. It was much the same as the way he left his family in Stuttgart, under a veil of fabricated loyalty.
Living was living.
The price was guilt and shame.
This book is so carefully constructed to make me feel like I am drowning in a dark underwater cave filled with darkness and misery where I will never be found. Zusak, you are a true poet of the sad. 😦
The book goes to Liesel’s perspective next, which is much less sympathetic:
For his first few days in the basement, Liesel had nothing to do with him. She denied his existence. His rustling hair, his cold, slippery fingers.
His tortured presence.
I can understand Liesel at first being scared of Max and then viewing Max as a curiosity, but now that she understands why he is there and has lived with him for a few days, it seems that she is simply being petty enough to resent him for inconveniencing their lives.
To be fair, even Hans and Rosa consider their best options for getting Max out of their lives, but to no avail (and Hans does patiently deal with his feces).
When Liesel is eventually forced to deal with Max, the detail that she finds most interesting about him is, quite naturally, a book.
When Max came out, he was holding Mein Kampf. Upon his arrival, he’d offered it back to Hans Hubermann but was told he could keep it.
Naturally, Liesel, while holding the dinner, couldn’t take her eyes off it. It was a book she had seen a few times at the BDM, but it hadn’t been read or used directly in their activities. There were occasional references to its greatness, as well as promises that the opportunity to study it would come in later years, as they progressed into the more senior Hitler Youth division.
Zusak also illustrates the basic problem that’s lingering underneath all this unease and awkward tension:
Therein lay the problem.
Life had altered in the wildest possible way, but it was imperative that they act as if nothing at all had happened.
Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.
That was the business of hiding a Jew.
A lot of books simply portray epic changes to the daily routine as something the characters can shrug off, as well. Living in a fantasy land you don’t know the rules for is apparently no big hurdle, but here we know that the characters don’t quite know what they’re doing. Something is going to go wrong. And we can sit through chapters and chapters of seeming tranquility, but we all know that somewhere along the lines a mistake will be made, and something bad is going to happen.
As time goes on everywhere everyone simply accepts the situation, and goes about their lives as normal, keeping it secret from everyone else in the process (including Rudy!). The more notable problem at the moment is that Helena Schmidt cancels her washing deliveries, so now Liesel and Rosa are only collecting laundry for the mayor and his wife.
We also know, of course, that Liesel will have a fallout with her and steal from the library, but for now she’s content to simply go there and read an especially disturbing book.
And luckily for Max, another book (the one Hans and Liesel have been reading) proves helpful to him when Hans arranges for them to read in the basement and discovers how bad Max’s situation is:
Slowly, then, the drop sheets were dragged aside and the emaciated body and face of Max Vandenburg appeared. In the moist light, he stood with a magic discomfort. He shivered.
Hans touched his arm, to bring him closer.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You cannot stay down here. You’ll freeze to death.”
So Hans puts his foot down with Rosa and convinces her to let Max into their bedroom every night to sleep by the fireplace and go back to the basement during the day:
A voiceless human.
The Jewish rat, back to his hole.
The reason behind this is mostly so they don’t have to keep the curtains closed all day to shield Max (which would raise suspicion), but I can’t help but wonder how much it has to do with Hans realizing the need to keep Liesel and Max apart. It’s implied he arranged for them to resume reading in the basement so the two would have to interact, but he must recognize they are not ready for that on a constant basis.
Again there is visibly no real surface conflict that must be solved. Tension does arise at Christmas when Trudy arrives and Zusak just defuses any tension by taking us through the holidays in 2 tiny paragraphs:
Christmas came and went with the smell of extra danger. As expected, Hans Junior did not come home (both a blessing and an ominous disappointment), but Trudy arrived as usual, and fortunately, things went smoothly.
*** THE QUALITIES OF SMOOTHNESS ***
Max remained in the basement.
Trudy came and went without
In a way, I think this is disappointing. Zusak is obviously building up to another climax to end this part, but it would be a good exercise in tension if we were taken painstakingly through the whole process of preparing for Trudy’s visit and then the visit herself, with near misses, just to demonstrate how precarious the situation is. As Hans and Rosa ultimately decide, they can’t even trust their own daughter!
Liesel, however, starts to become less wary of Max, and the moment she starts talking to him, quite naturally for her, is over a book:
Occasionally he brought the copy of Mein Kampf and read it next to the flames, seething at the content. The third time he brought it, Liesel finally found the courage to ask her question.
“Is it – good?”
Naturally, Max is at first furious at this question (though it does make one wonder why he was actually reading it), but another side to his personality develops as he quickly puts a positive perspective on it:
Sweeping away the anger, he smiled at her. He lifted the feathery fringe and dumped it toward his eyes. “It’s the best book ever.” Looking at Papa, then back at the girl. “It saved my life.”
So carefully but surely, Zusak sows the seeds for a genuine bond between the two as Liesel’s natural curiosity over books. He makes this shift in their relationship very believable as Liesel asks for more information about how the book saved Max’s life, and becomes deeply interested in his stories as he becomes less of a mysterious cipher and more of a three-dimensional person in her estimation:
When Liesel looked back on the events of her life, those nights in the living room were some of the clearest memories she had. She could see the burning light on Max’s eggshell face and even taste the human flavor of his words. The course of his survival was related, piece by piece, as if he were cutting each part out of him and presenting it on a plate.
This soon takes a sad turn, however, as Max becomes overcome with self-loathing as he recounts his story and begins blaming himself for endangering the Hubermanns, becoming almost frenzied as he pleads for their forgiveness.
His arm touched the fire and he snapped it back.
They all watched him, silent, until Papa stood and walked closer. He sat next to him.
“Did you burn your elbow?”
It’s a small gesture, but it does a lot to demonstrate what pure human selflessness is. The fact Hans is willing to ask rather than agree with Max shows, without having to be stated, how much Max is worth, even if he refuses to see it himself. And it’s Hans who points out the similarities between Max and Liesel:
“You know something?” Hans asked. He leaned toward the fire. “Liesel’s actually a good little reader herself.” Max lowered the book. “And she has more in common with you than you might think.” Papa checked that Rosa wasn’t coming. “She likes a good fistfight, too.”
How exactly does he know about that?
“I saw [Ludwig Schmeikl]’s papa at the Knoller.”
Liesel held her face in her hands. Once uncovered again, she asked the pivotal question. “Did you tell Mama?”
“Are you kidding?” He winked at Max and whispered to the girl, “You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
Please appoint this man supreme ruler of the world, for he does know it all. Hans Hubermann for the win.
And then Death himself points out what else Max and Liesel have in common:
During the nights, both Liesel Meminger and Max Vandenburg would go about their other similarity. In their separate rooms, they would dream their nightmares and wake up, one with a scream in drowning sheets, the other with a gasp for air next to a smoking fire.
Once Hans plants this thought in Liesel’s mind, the seeds are sown for the true emotional climax of the chapter as Zusak finally shows Liesel forming an image of Max in her mind as a true human being. So it comes realistically, after a while of Liesel only finding Max possible to converse with as a curiosity piece, that they have a true moment of unprecedented connection. Zusak portrays this all so vividly and beautifully we can imagine the scene in our own head:
She made her way quietly down the hallway and into the living and bedroom.
The whisper was soft, clouded in the throat of sleep.
To begin with, there was no sound of reply, but he soon sat up and searched the darkness.
Zusak finally uses the bold notes to full effect, as well, as contained in one he gives us two human beings tentatively coming to an understanding with each other, and forming the bond of friendship together, as they experience true empathy with one another.
*** THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES ***
The girl: “Tell me. What do you see when you dream like that?”
The Jew: “…I see myself turning around, and waving goodbye.”
The girl: “I also have nightmares.”
The Jew: “What do you see?”
The girl: “A train, and my dead brother.”
The Jew: “Your brother?”
The girl: “He died when I moved here, on the way.”
The girl and the Jew, together: “Ja-yes.”
Zusak admits, however, in a beautiful metaphor, that moments like this don’t create an immediate permanent impact on your lives, however, and there is still more work to be done before Liesel and Max can find true healing for their problems:
The nightmares arrived like they always did, much like the best player in the opposition when you’ve heard rumors that he might be injured or sick-but there he is, warming up with the rest of them, ready to take the field. Or like a timetabled train, arriving at a nightly platform, pulling the memories behind it on a rope. A lot of dragging. A lot of awkward bounces.
This really is Zusak’s writing at its best. It sums up what we’ve seen so far, masters the art of visualization, and stands alone as a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of his literary techniques.
And Liesel and Max’s relationship does continue to steadily improve, as Liesel gives Max a newspaper so he can do the crossword, and Max finds himself unable to figure out how to repay the favor, highlighted especially when Liesel’s birthday comes around and she receives her fifth book as a present (“The Mud Men“) he has nothing to offer.
Death ends this chapter, however, by returning to his old tradition of teasing us about the future:
I often imagine him lying awake all that night, pondering what he could possibly offer.
As it turned out, the gift was delivered on paper, just over a week later.
He would bring it to her in the early hours of morning, before retreating down the concrete steps to what he now liked to call home.
And we finally have another blueprint to work off of, heading into:
PAGES FROM THE BASEMENT
Zusak starts off by continuing the tension regarding the gift Max is preparing for Liesel, as Hans, Rosa, and Max all stop her from coming down into the basement for a week using any means necessary. This does raise the question of whether this would arouse Liesel’s suspicion, but it also gives us an opportunity to see Rosa in a different light than usual.
For once, her curmudgeonly, abrasive nature is used to help someone for once as she keeps Max’s surprise safe and…
You can do all manner of underhanded nice things when you have a caustic reputation. It worked.
GODDAMN IT, DEATH. Stop DOING MY WORK FOR ME.
But Zusak then immediately ends the mystery by showing us what Max has been working on in the basement.
During that week, Max had cut out a collection of pages from Mein Kampf and painted over them in white. He then hung them up with pegs on some string, from one end of the basement to the other.
The most important factor to note in all this is that Max has so little at his disposal in order to make a proper gift (basically a hateful book written by a power-hungry mass-murderer and paint), and yet he creates a beautiful booklet that gives this part of the book its name (“The Standover Man”).
What’s most surprising is Zusak actually takes the time to draw out the whole 13-page booklet for us to read before Liesel has a chance to (with faded text from Mein Kampf underneath to add to the realism), and while I can’t summarize the whole thing, it basically tells Max’s life story using his words and simplistic illustrations, from his father’s disappearance and his sad days in hiding, to the development of his friendship with Liesel. It is extremely simplistic to the point of childlike, but is sincere, expertly sums up Max’s character arc and the last 36 pages of the book, and most importantly, comes from the heart.
Max delivers it to Liesel’s room in the middle of the night and tells a barely-awake Liesel to read it in the morning, and Zusak even manages to make something as simple as this into beautifully surreal writing, capturing the feeling we often have when we are somewhere halfway between dream and reality, as Liesel can’t even tell if it’s happening in her head. Then when she wakes up and reads it, Zusak even describes the paper crackling in her hand.
My only complaint is it seems a bit pointless to describe this when we can literally turn the pages and see it for ourselves without needing to imagine it:
There were the erased pages of Mein Kampf, gagging, suffocating under the paint as they turned.
What Zusak does right is portraying how carefully Liesel fixates on the words, noticing a new one every time she reads the booklet through. It’s clear she is touched by Max’s present, and what’s most important, she accepts the idea he has that they are friends now.
She goes down to the basement to thank him, but he is a much heavier sleeper than her, so she simply stays and watches him, finally acknowledging him as a human being and someone she can relate to as a fellow person in the house. We get the impression that these two who went through so much suffering and death, are no longer alone, and that they have some understanding for each other.
The scrawled words of practice stood magnificently on the wall by the stairs, jagged and childlike and sweet. They looked on as both the hidden Jew and the girl slept, hand to shoulder.
German and Jewish lungs.
And the chapter, and Part Four of the book ends on a positive note, but we can only wonder where the war will take these characters, and what this newfound bond will lead to.