Adams, Jenni, '‘‘Into Eternity’s Certain Breadth’’: Ambivalent Escapes in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief' Children’s Literature in Education' (2010) 41:222–233
‘‘Into Eternity’s Certain Breadth’’: Ambivalent Escapes in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief
This article examines the consolatory possibilities presented by Markus Zusak’s recent crossover novel The Book Thief, investigating the degree to which the novel delivers the simultaneous consolation and confrontation identified with children’s and young adults’ Holocaust texts by such critics as Adrienne Kertzer and Lawrence Baron. Contending that the supernatural nature of the novel’s redemptive imagery ultimately undermines its apparently consolatory purpose, the article concludes with an analysis of the extent to which such a reading is complicated by the novel’s status as crossover text, and the triangular gaze that might subsequently be attributed to its adult readers.
Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, originally published in 2005, is a recent crossover bestseller by an Australian children’s writer of German emigrant parents. While the novel’s marketing has varied according to the country of its publication, in the United Kingdom the text was published simultaneously for adults and teenagers, in the dual editions frequently associated with the publication and marketing of crossover texts. The book charts the wartime experience of a German girl, Liesel Meminger, who is fostered by a family in Molching, near Munich, in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, the Hubermanns begin to shelter a Jew in their basement, and the experience of concealing Max, coupled with her witnessing of the forced marches of Jewish prisoners from the nearby concentration camp at Dachau, mobilises Liesel’s resistance to the Nazi regime. Such resistance takes the form of both an increasing loyalty to Max and an engagement in the practice of book theft, an activity that is also closely related to Liesel’s mourning of both her brother’s death and her mother’s disappearance. What makes the novel unusual for a Holocaust text is its narration by Death, a potentially disturbing figure who nevertheless functions to mediate the harsh realities of the novel’s subject matter, enabling Zusak to accommodate the conflicting expectations surrounding Holocaust literature aimed at children and young adults. I refer here to the observations of Lydia Kokkola (2003) and others regarding the atypicality of Holocaust material as a subject matter for young people’s literature. Kokkola (2003) states that ‘‘one can argue that any writing about the Holocaust for children breaks a strict taboo: that children are not to be frightened’’ (p. 11), echoing Lawrence Baron’s (2003) observation that ‘‘[p]arents and teachers naturally want to avoid traumatizing children and adolescents with overly graphic depictions of violence or instilling in them a sense of despair about human nature’’ (p. 394). Despite this focus on protecting young readers, contributions to a youth literature of the Holocaust proliferate,1 as critics including Kokkola, Elizabeth Baer (2000) and Kenneth Kidd (2005) observe—a phenomenon Kidd links to a growing acceptance of the opposing idea that young readers should be exposed to rather than shielded from atrocity (p. 120).2 Such debate indicates a perceived necessity that Holocaust literature for young people negotiates the conflicting imperatives of protection from and exposure to trauma. This apparent paradox has prompted the suggestion that such projects necessitate a double narrative approach which ‘‘simultaneously respects our need for hope and happy endings even as it teaches us a different lesson about history’’ (Kertzer, 2002, p. 75). Baron (2003, p. 396) presents one example of what such an approach might entail, observing in Holocaust films aimed at children a contradiction between the experiences of central characters, who usually survive, and peripheral characters, who often meet with a more historically representative fate. A comparable doubleness can be identified in Zusak’s use of the narrating figure of Death, a figure which serves simultaneously to confront the adolescent reader with the fact of death (in both an abstract and a historically located sense) and to offer protection from the most unsettling implications of this fact. This article will examine more closely the double narrative approach in Zusak’s novel, before proceeding to argue that the novel’s crossover status in fact complicates the possibilities of consolation and confrontation it offers, particularly as regards The Book Thief’s adult readership.
1 Other recent examples include Morris Gleitzman’s Once (2005) and Then (2008) and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), the latter of which also raises interesting issues regarding the possibility of the ‘‘escape from history’’ in children and young adults’ Holocaust literature.
2 In attempting to explain the emergence of this idea, Kidd (2005) states that ‘‘[p]resumably the exposure model became necessary because we no longer have the luxury of denying the existence of or postponing the child’s confrontation with evil’’ (pp. 120–121).
In the context of literature aimed simultaneously at adult and adolescent readers, the motif of a personified Death most obviously recalls Terry Pratchett’s ‘‘Discworld’’ novels, most notably Mort (1988). While Zusak’s Death bears a strong resemblance to Pratchett’s, however, it is the tradition of pictorial representations, rather than the context of recent literary personifications of death, that provides the greatest insight into the ambivalent potential of the image. As John Aberth (2001) states, the tradition of representation in which the skeletal or corpselike figure of Death is pictured claiming the living at the moment of their demise originated in Northern Europe in the late Middle Ages. Aberth (2001) links the emergence of this tradition to the impact upon the creative psyche of the Black Death. In particular, the Dance of Death—a performance in which the Death figure claims a series of characters from different levels of society—is linked simultaneously to the desire to enact the plague and the attempt to ward it off (pp. 205–206). Such a performance, and the central role of the personified Death therein, is thus both a memento mori and an attempt to domesticate and, hence, defuse the fear of, death.
Zusak’s decision to have as his narrator a personified Death presents just such an ambivalent, or ‘‘double,’’ project, simultaneously rendering death comprehensible and foregrounding its inevitability. This attitude of ambivalence is clearly evident in such passages as the following one, which comes at the beginning of the novel: 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 colour 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. (Zusak, 2007, p. 4) This passage places a confrontation with the fact of death alongside a recontextualisation and mitigation of this fact. The reader is directly addressed (‘‘you will be lying there’’), forcing a realisation of one’s own mortality, while the image of being ‘‘caked in your own body’’ evokes a powerful sense of abjection, effectively confronting the reader with both the terror of death and the extent to which it defies straightforward depiction. On the other hand, the compassionate and quasi-parental image of Death bearing away the freed soul in his arms, added to the figuration of Death as human in the reference to his breathing,3 articulates an opposing impulse to console. The personification thus stands between the reader and the reality of death as an ambivalent figure, both agent and alleviator of this incomprehensible threat.
The ambivalence of Death’s presentation in the novel is encapsulated in the image of Death as ‘‘standover man.’’ The line ‘‘I will be standing over you’’ carries a particular resonance in the light of the illustrated text later produced by the hidden3 Although Zusak’s Death does not claim any specific gender, I will use the male pronoun to refer to the narrator as, within the text, Max refers to Death as male (p. 204).
Max as a birthday present for Liesel. ‘‘The Standover Man’’ is an autobiographical narrative in which Max details a number of images of ‘‘standover men’’ that have structured his life so far—his father, boys with whom he fought in childhood, the imagined officer of the Gestapo he feared during his time in hiding, and the friend who assisted him during this period (pp. 244–246). The final image of the ‘‘standover man’’ comes in Max’s description of his journey to the Hubermanns and his subsequent refuge in their home: ‘‘I slept there for a long time. Three days, they told me… and what did I find when I woke up? Not a man, but someone else standing over me’’ (p. 250). This ‘‘someone else,’’ as the accompanying drawing makes clear, is Liesel herself.
The story hence traces a series of images of the standover man, some of which represent Max’s terror and some of which present images of comfort. The visual style of the narrative likewise evokes its ambivalent situation between the poles of fear and consolation. In the absence of available paper, Max has drawn the story over the whitewashed pages of the copy of Mein Kampf in which Hans Hubermann sent him the keys to their house. Hitler’s words are still visible in places through the paint, with the effect that the antisemitic tract is both hidden by the fable and exposed within it, the story both confronting and protecting its young reader, Liesel, from the ugly truth about Germany. The visual vocabulary of the story is also striking, in that both Max and a number of the standover men are drawn as birds, in an apparent literalisation of Liesel’s comment that Max’s hair ‘‘is like feathers’’ (pp. 235, 252). Max’s use of the vocabulary of his most recent and reassuring standover figure in the representation of his earlier fears might be viewed as inflecting even the sinister dark bird of the story’s opening with a degree of ambivalence, to an extent defusing the negative connotations of these images through their presentation in a visual mode associated with friendship and shelter.
The narrative of ‘‘The Standover Man’’ thus presents a visual summary of the novel’s ambivalent attitude towards fear and consolation. As a supplementary standover man, Death presents just such a figure: sinister (‘‘You are going to die’’ (p. 3)) yet protective (‘‘Your soul will be in my arms’’), and, like Max’s bird drawings, death is framed in a vocabulary whose familiarity functions to mitigate its accompanying sense of fear. This dimension of comfort ostensibly forms a key element of the double narrative approach necessitated by the novel’s adolescent readership, allowing the fact of the Holocaust’s death toll to be introduced, while qualifying this fact with the suggested existence of both a benevolent gatherer of dead souls and the possibility of a consciousness after death. Nevertheless, we might also question both the ethical validity of such redemption and the degree to which these apparently consolatory elements do indeed function as such for a readership of adults and adolescents rather than young children, as I discuss further below. We see this double narrative approach not only in the presentation of Death in an abstract sense, as a ‘‘SMALL [but disconcerting] FACT’’ of human experience (p. 3), but also in the novel’s focus on specific historical losses, most notably in its depiction of the Holocaust. While the novel’s engagement with the Holocaust is wide-ranging, its treatment of the deaths of Jews in the concentration camps is confined to such passages as the following, which occur in one of the middle sections of the novel, entitled ‘‘Death’s Diary: The Parisians’’:
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.
When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. Their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, and their spirits came towards me, into my arms. We climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower. (p. 372)
Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their French words. I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear. (p. 373)
These passages appear highly problematic, obscuring the event’s traumatic historical reality in their presentation of a narrative of escape which seeks to recuperate the atrocities represented. From the understated pathos of ‘‘[f]or me, the sky was the colour of Jews,’’ the narrator quickly shifts to the presentation of an impossible flight from the gas chamber, which apparently seeks to minimise even the luridly imagined sufferings of the Jews by depicting their passage from this earthly torment into ‘‘eternity’s certain breadth.’’ The second passage, likewise, not only reframes these deaths in terms of rescue, as illustrated in Death’s claim to have ‘‘freed them from their fear,’’ but also construes death as a form of rebirth, as suggested in the statement that ‘‘I picked up each soul … as if it were newly born.’’ Such elements of redemptive repositioning are compounded in this passage by the narrator’s personal appeal to the reader (‘‘Please believe me’’), in a sentimental endeavour to mobilise the reader’s desire for such redemption.
These sections of the novel, while demonstrating the doubleness often considered necessary in Holocaust representations for young readers, thus also provide a firm illustration of the ethical problems surrounding escape and consolation in Holocaust literature. I refer here to the possibility that softening the finality of death by offering a redemptive aftermath entails a form of narrative fetishism, which Eric Santner (1992) defines as ‘‘the construction and deployment of a narrative consciously or unconsciously designed to expunge the traces of the trauma or loss that called that narrative into being in the first place’’ (p. 144). In other words, the redemptive narrative of Jewish death distorts the events in a significant way, denying both their traumatic dimension and their status as an unresolved ethical and memorial site that continues to demand a response. The ethically problematic nature of such representations raises the question of whether a double narrative approach is always the best strategy in representations of the Holocaust for young readers, given that certain instances of this approach risk distorting the reality of these events to an unacceptable degree.
It is in this sense that the passages cited invite urgent speculation about the reception of such material by the novel’s adult and adolescent readerships, speculation to which I will devote the remainder of this article. I aim first to explore the extent to which the possibility of narrative fetishism is mitigated, for both adult
and adolescent readers, by the supernatural nature of the ‘‘rescue’’ offered in the text, before moving on to examine the degree to which the status of The Book Thief as a crossover text creates the possibility of an unambivalent acceptance of such fetishistic consolations on the part of the adult reader.
To return to the problematic figuration detailed above, of the escape of the Holocaust’s victims ‘‘into eternity’s certain breadth,’’ I’d like to suggest, first of all, that to readers able to distinguish between the real and the supernatural—and I would include all of Zusak’s adult and adolescent readers in this category—such passages, rather than providing easy consolation, in fact invite a much more complex response. As a point of comparison, we might examine the critical response to D. M. Thomas’s controversial adult Holocaust novel The White Hotel (1981), a novel which, like Zusak’s, juxtaposes historical brutality with a redemptive presentation of an afterlife.4 In Thomas’s novel, the description of the violent death of the protagonist, Lisa, in the Babi Yar massacre, is followed by the line, ‘‘[b]ut all this had nothing to do with the guest, the soul, the lovesick bride, the daughter of Jerusalem’’ (p. 222). The next section of the novel, suggestively entitled ‘‘The Camp,’’ begins with Lisa’s arrival in the ‘‘sweet air’’ of Palestine (p. 225), and details her reconciliation with a number of deceased friends and relatives. James Berger (1999) succinctly summarises the bewildered and even angry response that such images of posthumous rehabilitation ostensibly invite:
But what, might we ask, is going on here? What kind of perverse comedy has Thomas perpetrated? These people do not recover, they do not reconcile, they do not heal. … They died in the camps. Why are we provided with this sick consolation … where no consolation is possible or even permissible? (Berger, 1999, p. 98)
Berger’s response to his own questions indicates one means of interpreting the apparently false consolation attaching to both Thomas’s ‘‘The Camp’’ and what I have thus far identified as the double narrative of The Book Thief. Berger goes on to state:
Since ‘‘The Camp’’ is so consciously a consoling fantasy, it both consoles and does not. … The fantasies of healing cause pain because we know that the dead will not heal, however much we wish them to. For on this point Thomas recognizes our desire: we want Lisa to live. It is unacceptable that she die at Babi Yar. And so, Thomas lets her live, although we know she died and that there is no heaven. (p. 98)
Berger’s compelling reading of ‘‘The Camp’’ suggests another sense—beyond the attempt to console its adolescent readers as it presents them with distressing material—in which the escapes presented by Zusak are ambivalent. The impossibility of any ‘‘escape’’ provided through a magical device such as Zusak’s or
4 While the afterlife itself is not clearly elaborated in The Book Thief, its existence is strongly implicit both in the souls’ survival of their physical deaths and in the novel’s occasional (if equivocal) references to God (e.g. p. 373).
Thomas’s descriptions of recuperation after death exploits ontological tensions in order to foreground the confrontation between historical actuality and reader desire. The magical nature of the escape presented here thus both signifies the impossibility of such an escape at the level of the historically real, and forces the reader to confront the disparity between narrative expectation or convention and a historical reality which starkly resists recuperation to the redemptive narrative trajectories of popular fiction.
The nature of the double narrative provided for young readers is hence more complex than is evident at first glance. The novel undoubtedly offers a mixture of consolation and confrontation in its portrayal both of mortality in a general sense, and of specific historical horror. However, to the reader able to identify the consolation as supernatural, these redemptive possibilities are troubling rather than complacent in their offer of a form of satisfaction that cannot be accepted. Since adolescent readers, like their adult counterparts, are able to distinguish adequately enough between reality and fantasy, we might conclude that Zusak’s novel implicitly faces even its younger readers with transparent ‘‘fantasies of healing’’ which ‘‘cause pain because we know that the dead will not heal, however much we
wish them to,’’ to borrow Berger’s phrase. (This assertion does, of course, assume an atheistic standpoint; as Berger’s remarks make clear, such escapes are only experienced ambivalently in the knowledge that ‘‘there is no Heaven.’’)
I have suggested thus far in this article that the doubleness of The Book Thief’s narrative approach—the simultaneous comfort and confrontation accompanying the perspective of Death—is in fact more complex than first appears, due to the conflict between the reader’s desire for such comfort and his/her knowledge that the posthumous escapes presented are impossible. In the remainder of this discussion, I want to consider further the complexities attaching to the supernatural consolations offered by the text, with a particular focus on the reception of Zusak’s crossover novel by its adult readers.
An adult’s reading of a crossover novel always unfolds within the context of the reading being attributed to an imagined child reader of the text. In this sense, the adult’s approach to the crossover novel can be usefully compared to Marianne Hirsch’s characterisation of the response of the adult viewer to photographs of child Holocaust victims. In Hirsch’s understanding (1999), images of children, because they are ‘‘less marked by the particularities of identity … invite multiple projections and identifications’’ (p. 13). As a result, the adult’s encounter with the child in the photograph is not so much a direct relation to the child in the image but a relation mediated by the adult’s idea of ‘‘the child,’’ an idea replete with the adult’s own investment in this figure. As Hirsch states:
It is my argument that the visual encounter with the child victim is a triangular one, that identification occurs in a triangular field of looking. The adult viewer sees the child victim through the eyes of his or her own child self. (Hirsch, 1999, p. 15)
The suggestion that the adult viewer of the photograph enters into a triangular relation with both the child pictured in the image and an imagined projection of the viewing adult as child has interesting implications for a study of cross-reading. In
the context of crossover literature, this triangular relationship encompasses the adult reader, the imagined perspective of the child reader, and the crossover text itself.
Adult readers’ paratextually-imposed awareness that they are reading a text at least partly intended for a child reader inevitably has the effect of their invocation of and partial identification with the imagined perspective of a co-reading child—a problematic fact when it comes to a consideration of ‘‘escape’’ in Zusak’s novel, given the nature of this imagined perspective.
Before exploring these ideas further, it might be asked why the discussion has thus far focused on the imagined child counterpart of the adult reader, given the fact that The Book Thief, as a young adult novel, does not possess a readership easily categorisable as ‘‘child.’’ It is questionable whether the model of triangular looking is applicable to young adult texts, given that the process is expressly linked by Hirsch (1999) to the specific potential for universalisation implicit in the image of the child (p. 13).5 While the young readership of Zusak’s novel is more readily identifiable as young adult rather than child, however, it should be noted that in the context of Holocaust discourse, the notion of youth is inextricably bound up with the idea of innocence, an idea which renders the figure of the (imagined) co-reader in Holocaust crossover texts susceptible to a particular kind of stylisation. Kertzer, for instance, makes the following observation regarding the reception of representations of children and young adults in literary responses to atrocity:
In Cynthia Ozick’s ‘‘The Shawl’’, Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments … and Zlata Filipovic’s Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, the voices of childhood are strikingly different from [Anne] Frank’s voice; what remains constant is the adult need to hear in those voices a lesson about innocence.(Kertzer, 2002, p. 112)
Kertzer’s comments indicate a tendency on the part of adult readers to homogenise representations of youth in Holocaust literature within the overarching concept of childhood innocence. This adult investment in the notion of childhood innocence, even as such innocence is posited as ‘‘lost’’ in the face of historical horror, may be understood as the basis for the potentially distorted apprehension of the young character as innocent child in the eyes of the adult reader. Such stylisation must also be considered a factor in the adult constitution of the imaginary figure of the co-reading ‘‘child,’’ a young person whose actual status as teenager or young adult is, in the context of the endurance of the concept of innocence as a popular means of approaching the Holocaust, susceptible to being overwritten by the image of a much younger child conceived of as both ethically and historically naive.
This kind of slippage between adolescent and young child is echoed in the novel itself in the following passage, which relates Liesel’s grief at her discovery of the dead body of Hans Hubermann:
5 Alison Waller (2009, p. 6) has suggested the resistance of the idea of adolescence to such identifications and investments, indicating its status as ‘‘a liminal space onto which a distinct dichotomy of desires and fears cannot easily be projected.’’
Papa was a man with silver eyes, not dead ones.
Papa was an accordion!
But his bellows were all empty.
Nothing went in and nothing came out. (p. 572)
The references to Hans as ‘Papa’ in this passage invoke Liesel’s viewpoint, arguably positioning the passage as free indirect discourse, yet the syntactic simplicity of such phrases as ‘[n]othing went in and nothing went out’ suggests the perspective of a child much younger than Liesel, who is at this point fourteen years old. The highly stylised nature of this free indirect discourse thus invokes in the place of both Liesel and, significantly, the passage’s implied reader, a young child of limited interpretive and linguistic capacities, facilitating the adult’s approach to the text in part through this imagined child perspective. While the question of the way in which readers read is necessarily a matter of speculation, then, the novel itself at certain points invites precisely the kind of speculation advanced above as a result of its own susceptibility to a comparable form of slippage.6 Significantly, in the example above, this slippage occurs at a moment detailing the adolescent’s encounter with historical horror, underscoring the significance of such horror as a determining factor in the forms of developmental re-positioning detailed above.
The developmental re-positioning of the imagined co-reader carries particular significance in its implications for the orientation of this construct towards reality. As suggested by Roni Natov’s reference (2006) to ‘‘the child’s ability to pass in and out of the imaginative and ‘realistic’ realms, to live often fully and without much discomfort in both’’ (p. 5), the child reader, in contrast to the adolescent consumer of literature, is popularly figured in terms reflecting a lack of differentiation between magic and reality. The notion of childhood innocence prevalent both in responses to images of youth in Holocaust discourse (in Kertzer’s reading), and in the wider conception of the child within the Western cultural imagination, is thus not only moral and linguistic (as such critics as Rose, 1984, p. 8 suggest), but also ontological, characterised by an inability to discriminate between real and unreal.
The possibility that the co-reading child does not distinguish between the states of reality and unreality has crucial repercussions for a consideration of the ethical implications of Zusak’s novel. If the adult reader of Holocaust crossover literature in part reads through the eyes of this constructed child counterpart, then the fact that the adolescent reader of the novel is able to distinguish between reality and fantasy and thus avoid fully accepting the novel’s magical ‘‘escapes’’ is of little consequence. The adult reader identifying with his or her child counterpart in approach to the text is permitted, by the nature of this ontologically and historically innocent perspective, to accept the possibility of the rescue of the dead Jews, underlining the fact that, as Hirsch (1999) states, ‘‘our culture has a great deal invested in the children’s innocence and vulnerability’’ (p. 13). This belief in the child’s innocence thus permits the adult reader’s vicarious acceptance of the consolatory possibilities offered within the ‘‘double narrative’’ of Zusak’s novel, demonstrating an adult interest both in the belief in the child’s ontological naivety
6 Liesel’s illiteracy at the beginning of the novel provides another example of this slippage, again attributing to her one of the characteristics of a much younger child.
and in the related belief that the child requires a happy ending from its literary experience.7
Before moving on to discuss the additional possibilities of ‘‘looking’’ created by the Holocaust crossover text’s triangular figuration, there is another problematic aspect of the image of the child both as present in the novel (to the extent that Liesel is nine at the novel’s opening) and, in the reception of the text by the adult reader, as potentially read into the text. As Hirsch (1999) notes, ‘‘images of children readily lend themselves to … universalization’’ (p. 12), with the problematic consequence that the image of the child may function as a means of eliding political, cultural and experiential differences. The capacity of the child’s image to mediate between or collapse adult categories of difference is also emphasised by such theorists of childhood as Jacqueline Rose (1984, p. 10) and Virginia Blum (1995), the latter noting the capacity of the child to ‘‘elide the differences it contains’’ in order to cement ‘‘otherwise disparate agencies’’ (p. 7).
Such contentions are extremely relevant to an examination of the child’s image in
The Book Thief, in which the character of Liesel presents the possibility for a conflation of German and Jewish identity. Liesel’s parents, it is implied, were communists (p. 31), making her both part of a group positioned as persecuted other by the authorities (and a group frequently linked to the Jews in such propagandist inventions as ‘‘Judeo-Bolshevism’’) and, in her fostering by the Hubermanns, a part of mainstream German society. There are also a number of parallels between the German Liesel and the Jewish Max, as Hans Hubermann points out; these include the preoccupation of both with books and words and the fact that both enjoy ‘‘a good fist-fight’’ (p. 237). Like Max, Liesel also experiences nightmares, the content of which seems intended to create associations with Holocaust experience. For
In the night, Liesel dreamed like she always did. At first she saw the brownshirts marching, but soon enough they led her to a train, and the usual discovery awaited. Her brother was staring again. (p. 65)
The linking of the brown-shirts to the image of the train suggests the deportation of Jews by the Nazi authorities, as does the very fact of Liesel’s forced transportation and the death of her brother en route, which calls to mind the high proportion of fatalities occurring in overcrowded freight-cars. The passage thus illustrates not only the parallels that exist between the experiences of Liesel and those of Germany’s Jews, but also the extent to which the imagery used to represent these plot elements seems calculated to emphasise such similarities.
This use of language to blur the distinction between German Christian child and Jewish victim is, in some places, manifest in the casual use of highly charged phrases to describe Liesel’s experience. The Hubermanns’ home, for example, is located on ‘‘Himmel Street,’’ a slang term used to refer to the pathway to the gas chamber at Treblinka (Epstein et al. 1997, p. 126), while the description of Liesel’s arrival at the Hubermanns’ reads as follows:
7 On the topic of the adult desire for a happy ending in young people’s literature, see also Hamida Bosmajian (2002, p. 135).
A man was also in the car. … Liesel assumed he was there to make sure she didn’t run away, or to force her inside if she gave them any trouble. Later, however, when the trouble did start, he simply sat there and watched. Perhaps he was only the last resort, the final solution. (pp. 27–28)
While it might be argued that the use of the term ‘‘final solution’’ in this passage is merely an ill-judged attempt at humour or an effort to foreshadow the later events of the Holocaust, the sense of threat implicit in the speculation that the man’s role is to ‘‘force her inside if she gave them any trouble’’ creates parallels between Liesel’s experience and the forcing of victims into the gas chambers by SS guards. Although the extent to which the child status of Liesel is significant in this blurring of the boundaries between German and Jew is debatable, it might be argued, in the context of Hirsch’s and Blum’s remarks, that Liesel’s youth makes the blurring more likely to be accepted without scrutiny by an adult reader. This blurring of boundaries minimises the complex ethical issues raised by the treatment of German citizens’ experiences in the context of Holocaust history, in particular de-emphasising the issue of German responsibility by applying the images and motifs of Jewish victimhood to the experience of the German Christian child.
This article has attempted to unpack the complexity of the double narrative approach used in Zusak’s The Book Thief by considering the degree to which the novel functions simultaneously to confront its readers with a knowledge of historical horror and to protect them from it. I have examined the ostensible consolation offered by the benevolent figure of Death, suggesting that the supernatural register of such devices in fact undermines their apparently fetishistic purpose, instead functioning to confront even the adolescent reader with the refusal of Holocaust material to conform to a redemptive narrative trajectory. Nevertheless, I have also explored the degree to which the triangular possibilities of crossover reading retain the opportunity for a consolatory reading on the part of the crossreading adult. As detailed above, the concept of innocence prevalent within Holocaust discourse invites a developmental re-positioning of both the young person represented and the adolescent co-reader. Consequently, the adult reader may approach the text via the mediating figure of a child who is unable to recognise the proffered consolation as impossible.
Nevertheless, it should be remembered that such a reading is only one of the multiple possibilities of ‘‘looking’’ permitted within the triangular relationship of cross-reading. As Hirsch (1999) states, ‘‘[t]he adult also encounters the child (the other child and his/her own child self) both as a child, through identification, and from the protective vantage point of the adult-looking subject’’ (p. 15). A parental gaze is thus directed towards the imagined child reader and the child portrayed in the text, at the same time that a ‘‘childlike’’ gaze is invoked through the adult reader’s sideways glance at his/her imagined juvenile counterpart. Bearing in mind both the complexity of this dynamic, and the individual reader’s own role in actively and independently negotiating the multiple possibilities of response, it is clear that the degree to which the adult reader of Zusak’s novel is likely to succumb to the falsely consolatory possibilities detailed above remains an open question. What does emerge is an understanding of the multiplicity of issues which impact on the
reception of images of escape in crossover literature, and the complexity of double narrative approaches in such recent young adults’ Holocaust fictions as The Book Thief.
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