The Book Thief
For Elisabeth and Helmut Zusak,
with love and admiration
a mountain range of rubble
in which our narrator introduces:
himself—the colors—and the book thief
DEATH AND CHOCOLATE
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
REACTION TO THE
Does this worry you?
I urge you—don’t be afraid.
I’m nothing if not fair.
—Of course, an introduction.
Where are my manners?
I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.
At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps.
The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see—the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.
A SMALL THEORY
People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.
In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.
As I’ve been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I’ve been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision—to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors.
Still, it’s possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?
Which brings me to my next point.
It’s the leftover humans.
They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs.
Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors—an expert at being left behind.
It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* An accordionist
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery
I saw the book thief three times.
BESIDE THE RAILWAY LINE
First up is something white. Of the blinding kind.
Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color, and personally, I don’t think you want to argue with me.
A REASSURING ANNOUNCEMENT
Please, be calm, despite that previous threat.
I am all bluster—
I am not violent.
I am not malicious.
I am a result.
Yes, it was white.
It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it had pulled it on, the way you pull on a sweater. Next to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice.
As you might expect, someone had died.
• • •
They couldn’t just leave him on the ground. For now, it wasn’t such a problem, but very soon, the track ahead would be cleared and the train would need to move on.
There were two guards.
There was one mother and her daughter.
The mother, the girl, and the corpse remained stubborn and silent.
“Well, what else do you want me to do?”
The guards were tall and short. The tall one always spoke first, though he was not in charge. He looked at the smaller, rounder one. The one with the juicy red face.
“Well,” was the response, “we can’t just leave them like this, can we?”
The tall one was losing patience. “Why not?”
And the smaller one damn near exploded. He looked up at the tall one’s chin and cried, “Spinnst du?! Are you stupid?!” The abhorrence on his cheeks was growing thicker by the moment. His skin widened. “Come on,” he said, traipsing over the snow. “We’ll carry all three of them back on if we have to. We’ll notify the next stop.”
As for me, I had already made the most elementary of mistakes. I can’t explain to you the severity of my self-disappointment. Originally, I’d done everything right:
I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckled—I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched.
Twenty-three minutes later, when the train was stopped, I climbed out with them.
A small soul was in my arms.
I stood a little to the right.
The dynamic train guard duo made their way back to the mother, the girl, and the small male corpse. I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. I’m surprised the guards didn’t notice me as they walked by. The world was sagging now, under the weight of all that snow.
Perhaps ten meters to my left, the pale, empty-stomached girl was standing, frost-stricken.
Her mouth jittered.
Her cold arms were folded.
Tears were frozen to the book thief’s face.
Next is a signature black, to show the poles of my versatility, if you like. It was the darkest moment before the dawn.
This time, I had come for a man of perhaps twenty-four years of age. It was a beautiful thing in some ways. The plane was still coughing. Smoke was leaking from both its lungs.
When it crashed, three deep gashes were made in the earth. Its wings were now sawn-off arms. No more flapping. Not for this metallic little bird.
SOME OTHER SMALL FACTS
Sometimes I arrive too early.
I rush, and some people cling longer to life than expected.
After a small
collection of minutes, the smoke exhausted itself. There was nothing left to give.
A boy arrived first, with cluttered breath and what appeared to be a toolbox. With great trepidation, he approached the cockpit and watched the pilot, gauging if he was alive, at which point, he still was. The book thief arrived perhaps thirty seconds later.
Years had passed, but I recognized her.
She was panting.
From the toolbox, the boy took out, of all things, a teddy bear.
He reached in through the torn windshield and placed it on the pilot’s chest. The smiling bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right.
I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away.
All that was left was the body, the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear.
As the crowd arrived in full, things, of course, had changed. The horizon was beginning to charcoal. What was left of the blackness above was nothing now but a scribble, and disappearing fast.
The man, in comparison, was the color of bone. Skeleton-colored skin. A ruffled uniform. His eyes were cold and brown—like coffee stains—and the last scrawl from above formed what, to me, appeared an odd, yet familiar, shape. A signature.
The crowd did what crowds do.
As I made my way through, each person stood and played with the quietness of it. It was a small concoction of disjointed hand movements, muffled sentences, and mute, self-conscious turns.
When I glanced back at the plane, the pilot’s open mouth appeared to be smiling.
A final dirty joke.
Another human punch line.
He remained shrouded in his uniform as the graying light arm-wrestled the sky. As with many of the others, when I began my journey away, there seemed a quick shadow again, a final moment of eclipse—the recognition of another soul gone.
You see, to me, for just a moment, despite all of the colors that touch and grapple with what I see in this world, I will often catch an eclipse when a human dies.
I’ve seen millions of them.
I’ve seen more eclipses than I care to remember.
The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.
Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.
This time, everything was too late.
The sirens. The cuckoo shrieks in the radio. All too late.
Within minutes, mounds of concrete and earth were stacked and piled. The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there, like driftwood after the flood.
They were glued down, every last one of them. A packet of souls.
Was it fate?
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.
Yes, the sky was now a devastating, home-cooked red. The small German town had been flung apart one more time. Snowflakes of ash fell so lovelily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth.
Clearly, I see it.
I was just about to leave when I found her kneeling there.
A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her. She was clutching at a book.
Apart from everything else, the book thief wanted desperately to go back to the basement, to write, or to read through her story one last time. In hindsight, I see it so obviously on her face. She was dying for it—the safety of it, the home of it—but she could not move. Also, the basement didn’t even exist anymore. It was part of the mangled landscape.
Please, again, I ask you to believe me.
I wanted to stop. To crouch down.
I wanted to say:
“I’m sorry, child.”
But that is not allowed.
I did not crouch down. I did not speak.
Instead, I watched her awhile. When she was able to move, I followed her.
• • •
She dropped the book.
The book thief howled.
Her book was stepped on several times as the cleanup began, and although orders were given only to clear the mess of concrete, the girl’s most precious item was thrown aboard a garbage truck, at which point I was compelled. I climbed aboard and took it in my hand, not realizing that I would keep it and view it several thousand times over the years. I would watch the places where we intersect, and marvel at what the girl saw and how she survived. That is the best I can do—watch it fall into line with everything else I spectated during that time.
When I recollect her, I see a long list of colors, but it’s the three in which I saw her in the flesh that resonate the most. Sometimes I manage to float far above those three moments. I hang suspended, until a septic truth bleeds toward clarity.
That’s when I see them formulate.
RED: WHITE: BLACK:
They fall on top of each other. The scribbled signature black, onto the blinding global white, onto the thick soupy red.
Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt—an immense leap of an attempt—to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.
Here it is. One of a handful.
The Book Thief.
If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story.
I’ll show you something.
the grave digger’s handbook
himmel street—the art of saumensching—an ironfisted
woman—a kiss attempt—jesse owens—
sandpaper—the smell of friendship—a heavyweight
champion—and the mother of all watschens
ARRIVAL ON HIMMEL STREET
That last time.
That red sky …
How does a book thief end up kneeling and howling and flanked by a man-made heap of ridiculous, greasy, cooked-up rubble?
Years earlier, the start was snow.
The time had come. For one.
A SPECTACULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT
A train was moving quickly.
It was packed with humans.
A six-year-old boy died in the third carriage.
The book thief and her brother were traveling down toward Munich, where they would soon be given over to foster parents. We now know, of course, that the boy didn’t make it.
HOW IT HAPPENED
There was an intense spurt of coughing.
Almost an inspired spurt.
And soon after—nothing.
When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown color and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.
Their mother was asleep.
I entered the train.
My feet stepped through the cluttered aisle and my palm was over his mouth in an instant. No one noticed. The train galloped on. Except the girl.
With one eye open, one still in a dream, the book thief—also known as Liesel Meminger—could see without question that her younger brother, Werner, was now sideways and dead.
His blue eyes stared at the floor.
Prior to waking up, th
e book thief was dreaming about the Führer, Adolf Hitler. In the dream, she was attending a rally at which he spoke, looking at the skull-colored part in his hair and the perfect square of his mustache. She was listening contentedly to the torrent of words spilling from his mouth. His sentences glowed in the light. In a quieter moment, he actually crouched down and smiled at her. She returned the smile and said, “Guten Tag, Herr Führer. Wie geht’s dir heut?” She hadn’t learned to speak too well, or even to read, as she had rarely frequented school. The reason for that she would find out in due course.
Just as the Führer was about to reply, she woke up.
It was January 1939. She was nine years old, soon to be ten.
Her brother was dead.
One eye open.
One still in a dream.
It would be better for a complete dream, I think, but I really have no control over that.
The second eye jumped awake and she caught me out, no doubt about it. It was exactly when I knelt down and extracted his soul, holding it limply in my swollen arms. He warmed up soon after, but when I picked him up originally, the boy’s spirit was soft and cold, like ice cream. He started melting in my arms. Then warming up completely. Healing.
For Liesel Meminger, there was the imprisoned stiffness of movement and the staggered onslaught of thoughts. Es stimmt nicht. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
And the shaking.
Why do they always shake them?
Yes, I know, I know, I assume it has something to do with instinct. To stem the flow of truth. Her heart at that point was slippery and hot, and loud, so loud so loud.
Stupidly, I stayed. I watched.
Next, her mother.
She woke her up with the same distraught shake.
If you can’t imagine it, think clumsy silence. Think bits and pieces of floating despair. And drowning in a train.
• • •
Snow had been falling consistently, and the service to Munich was forced to stop due to faulty track work. There was a woman wailing. A girl stood numbly next to her.