Half a dozen years ago, Markus Zusak, a first-generation Australian of German and Austrian extraction, was being hailed as an important new voice. Grounded in his working-class Sydney roots, Zusak's three early novels—The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl—were acclaimed for their fresh take on suburban masculinity. The Australian papers were filled with anxious reports about declining reading habits among young males, and Zusak's intelligent but street-smart books for young adults were ardently welcomed.
Now, at the age of 30, Zusak has a new book that may be just as welcome, coming on the heels of last fall's race riots in Sydney's southern suburbs between white locals and Middle Eastern immigrants. The Book Thief is set in Germany during WWII, and concerns a German family on the outskirts of Munich that hides a young Jewish man. At a time when Australia is struggling with its own tolerance issues, The Book Thief delivers a message about how differences can and should be accommodated. Interestingly, in Australia, Zusak's new book is being aimed this time not at teenagers, but at adults.
Zusak has already won a number of prestigious literary awards, including a Printz Honor for I Am the Messenger (Knopf, 2005), which also won the Children's Book Council Book of the Year award for older readers in Australia, as well as several state literary awards. The appeal of his early books, at least in Australia, was in part due to his honest appraisal of working-class life. Zusak grew up in the suburban area known as The Shire, where the recent rioting was centered, and he has just moved back there after living elsewhere in Sydney for a few years. "I figure they need more people with names like Zusak down there," he observed with a wry grin as we walked to find a quiet coffee shop on a busy shopping strip.
As young post-WWII immigrants, Zusak's parents arrived in Australia knowing little English, and they weren't really book people, says Zusak—except in the sense that they encouraged their four children to read ("I've got every Dr Seuss book there is." Zusak says). His parent are, however, storytellers, and The Book Thief found its initial inspiration in two stories Zusak remembers being told as a child. The first was of a tale his mother told of Munich being bombed. "Everything was red, like the sky was on fire. That was a memory that I could see really clearly as a child, a very visual image," he says. The second story was of a teenage boy who took pity on an emaciated Jew being forced through the streets, and offered him some bread. Both were whipped by a soldier who witnessed this act of compassion.
Zusak originally planned The Book Thief to be a 100-page novella based on these two memories, but, "Once I started writing—it took three years to write—one thing turned into another. Once the ideas came they wouldn't stop."
PW called The Book Thief "an achievement—challenging in both length and subject." Indeed it is, clocking in at 560 pages and featuring as its narrator "Death." Death tells the tale of a girl, Liesel, orphaned when her Communist father is taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel goes to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann in a small town outside Munich. Hans teaches Liesel to read, and thereafter she steals and reads every book she can get her hands on. The Hubermanns also take in Max, a young Jewish man, and the relationship between Liesel and Max forms the emotional and thematic core of the novel.
In writing about Nazi Germany, Zusak was aware that he was entering well-traveled terrain. Hence his decision to give the narration not to a living person but to Death itself. "I wrote the sentence, 'I have seen the colour of time on three occasions,'" he explains. "I wrote this about three deaths, and Death himself was the narrator." So he went with it.
The language of the book is striking. "I wanted Death to talk in a way that humans don't speak," Zusak says. "One thing I stood by [in the editing process] was when Death says things like 'the trees who stood' or 'the sky who was this color.' He refers to the sky and the trees and the clouds as though they're colleagues."
Zusak, who grew up speaking German—a rough, working-class argot, as in the book—is at pains to clarify that while the novel involves German characters sympathetic to and supportive of Jews, it isn't a pro-German tract, nor an apologia. "I'm not trying to get people to re-examine their views on Nazi Germany," the author says. "All I'm trying to do, like every writer does, is to tell a story that hasn't been told in this way before. It's the hope to examine one small story in the big story that we already know.
The Book Thief was published last September in Australia to wide acclaim, and was positioned by Pan Macmillan as Zusak's adult debut. Random House here has chosen to publish it as a YA, a situation that Zusak is comfortable with. "For a teenage audience, it's clearly for sophisticated readers. You just hope it gets into the right person's hands, whatever their age," he says.
Like most any writer, Zusak hopes that readers will "love the characters." But he also hopes that readers will appreciate his attempt at writing a different kind of book, where death is not a hidden theme but a dominant voice. "Whether it worked or not, you just want people to see the attempt," Zusak says. "You want them to see you've tried, and that you did try to give them something fresh."