A friend lent me “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. It took me a while to read it because I needed time to think about each piece that I chewed off. It’s a remarkable story told in a very unusual way and I think that it’s the way that it’s told that has made it difficult for me to stop thinking about it. To borrow a word from the book it is “haunting”. It’s set in Nazi Germany. The extraordinary is ordinary and the ordinary is extraordinary. There is triumph in death, despair in life, and the converse. It confirms the universality of human relationships and experiences. A great read.
“The Book Thief” is not your typical war story but, even though it was set in Munich, I found myself constantly reminded of stories told by my mother who in 1939 was twenty (ten years older than the book thief) and living in London. Some of my mother’s stories I didn’t hear until she was telling them to my daughter. I think that it may have taken decades for my mother to accept that there is no sense to be made of war, only stories. My father was typical of his generation and never spoke at all of his experiences as a soldier. He had taken many photos while he was in North Africa, and had kept a diary. I recently electronically scanned his photos and as I did so I looked through them seeing for the first time a young man thoroughly enjoying being in an exotic world full of pyramids, camels and sand. He was a despatch rider and when he came off his motor bike he spent time first in hospital, then with an Egyptian family. The youngest daughter, only a few years old, apparently was already able to speak several languages. This is the only story I remember him telling of his time in the war. My mother was considered part of an essential work force and so was kept in London. She sewed surgical dressings and had done so since she left school at thirteen. During the “blitz” she was a fire warden and was required to take shifts staying nights in warehouses and buildings watching out for fires from the bombings. My mother has always been shy and she said that at the time she was also timid and absolutely terrified of the rats that lived in these old buildings – far more scared of the rats than any fire hazards or bombs. She recalls when everyone was first given gas masks which they were required to wear during air raids. At first these masks were diligently worn, despite being horribly uncomfortable. Similarly, everyone went to the air raid shelters when the sirens went off. She said that it wasn’t long before the masks weren’t worn, and many people stopped going to the shelters, some of which were simply the underground railway stations. Food was rationed and my mother recalls always being hungry, yet it seems that the English government did a far better job of keeping food supplied to the people than the Germans did.
While reading “The Book Thief” I was constantly reminded of the ordinariness of people, and that we are at times little more than tools of governments. We have only to look at America in the last decade (and before) to be cynically and sickeningly reminded of this.