Stealing the Narrative: The Irony of Reading in The Book Thief
The dominating theme of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is an ironic one. Here is a novel where a main character is nothing less than the symbol of mortality itself, Death, yet the story continually celebrates the life spirit that is contained within books. Books are inanimate objects, to be sure, but they are also very much like Death: a mere symbol of the stories contained them rather than the tangible concretizing of those living, breathing characters. And yet the message that arises over and over throughout the story is that a book can have multiple lives. Books, the story suggests, are almost like cats that have been endowed with the myth of multiple lives because they are capable of sudden reappearing after a long sojourn away from your consciousness. The Book Thief is a novel that raises the metaphor of each reader bringing his own meaning to the act of reading into the real world, primarily through its proposition that readers have the power to take the hatred intended by the author of Mein Kampf. That book is transformed into a literal key to unlocking what the reader wants the narrative to mean, creating freedom by undermining a symbol of totalitarianism.
Death narrates the book and very early on encapsulates for readers what they should expect from the narrative when he asserts that “It’s just a small story really, about, among things: a small girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery” (5). If a reader were to take Death at his word, The Book Thief might well turn out to be a relatively interesting story filled with crazy Krauts, a kind of fight club, weird music and probably a moral lesson. Death is not being entirely sincere, however; Death—as is his wont—is being ironic. This assertion is an example of real irony, not the kind of “bummer” irony like rain on your wedding day. He is underplaying what the book is actually going to be about and so right from the very beginning the theme that The Book Thief is about the power of books to contain multiple meanings for multiple readers is made clear. The reader who does not understand irony except in its modern-day “bummer” mentality will not interpret the book in the same way that someone who does understand the literary meaning of irony. The opening section establishes a motif that continues to show up throughout the novel in which insight into what a text means is dependent upon the reader’s relationship with that text.
For instance, most readers of this novel are probably already aware by the time they open the book that Mein Kampf was written by Adolf Hitler in order to rouse the Germans against Jews and to convince them that Nationalism was the answer to their problems. The ways that Mein Kampf are used throughout the story reveals that the relationship someone has with it is—for the most part—stripped away from whatever intention Hitler may have had. Hans Junior angrily confronts Liesel by admonishing that “You’re either for the Fuhrer or against him–and I can see that you’re against him. You always have been.” What this quote is really saying is that one person can read a book that is intended to produce one response and experience the exact opposite response. When this happens, the book does not die; it is reborn. Again the irony is explicit: Death is the narrator, but even when Death narrates, a book is a living thing. Not just a living thing, but a thing that can be resurrected into having a new meaning with each new reader. Even the title The Book Thief becomes something of an irony: it’s not the book that’s being stolen, it’s the meaning of the book!
The way Mein Kampf becomes the symbolic text divulging how the narrative of literally any book can be stolen and reinterpreted to serve the exact opposite purpose becomes most clear through the use of a more concrete symbol: the key. Nothing quite illuminates the symbolic power of stealing the intent of a narrative in quite the way that is achieved when Hans specifically chooses Mein Kampf as the place to hide the key he sends to Max. This choice verges on sheer genius. Because no “Good German” would ever even have reason to suspect that Hitler’s bible for planning his vision of the Nazi atrocity exhibition would be used to bring about the exact opposite of the book’s desired intent, everybody remains above suspicion. Hans steals the narrative from its author to use the content to serve purposes that fully undermine what the author had in mind. This is more than mere symbolism. This is a way of showing the true power that books have to change minds or even change the world. Much more symbolic in nature is the final and ultimate reinterpretation of Mein Kampf which not only steals the meaning, but does manage, finally, to kill the content
The final summation of the theme of The Book Thief that stealing a book means far more than just stealing the actual bound pages is demonstrated in a way that combines symbolic meaning with the literal. “The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another. Some took minutes. Others hours” (277-278). What is especially interesting about Max using the literal pages of Adolf Hitler’s notebook of hated to reinterpret its narrative meaning is that this this description is prefaced by “Originally, Max had intended to write his own story” (278). Instead of writing his own story—giving birth to brand new narrative—the means by which Max ultimately writes his own story is by inscribing his narrative into the story told by Hitler.
The Book Thief through its specific mechanism of utilizing Hitler’s Mein Kampf posits the argument that author and the reader are two integral parts of a narrative tied together and one cannot exist without the other. Through the act of interpretation, the reader becomes an inhabitant of the narrative and thus are tendered the privilege to rewrite the text to reflect their own existence in the world outside the covers. That is a concrete reality. The reader of a book can break into the narrative like a home invader to become a thief who hijacks the narrative himself. That is the symbolic reality of stealing a narrative.
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