The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
A ‘Book Hangover’ is when you walk around wishing you never finished that book. That angst-laden, nostalgia-fraught feeling, that things will never be the same again after that book. That no author will ever match up. That you will never again read sentences, paragraphs and chapters so beautifully coiffed, or storylines so emotionally seductive. That while you were busy tweeting and trolling Instagram, this book sat somewhere undiscovered by you, your paths refusing to cross. And you wonder how many books like that are out there, unknown to you, passing you by like shadowy ships in the dark. What a Book Hangover really is though, is that feeling when you have broken up with someone you quite fancy and you imagine – quite wrongly – that you might never meet anyone like them again. A Book Hangover is one of the perils of loving books, knowing that in this love you will be seduced, and then used and discarded to mend your broken expectations. A good book always triumphs in the end.
I’m currently in this state of literary peril. I just finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. And that’s another thing; I remember the exact moment and place I finished the books that made the biggest impression on me. And I remember the exact feeling the book exhumed from my soul.
I finished Mario Puzo’s Fools Die in campus in a small single-roomed hovel in Kansanga which I shared with Gasirigwa, my Pan-African-frenzied Tanzanian roomie. It was in the afternoon, right before I left for the gym and I remember thinking about how the candle simply flickered off on the characters in that book, without even a breeze. I finished About A Boy by Tony Parsons in my little SQ on a hot weekend. I was working my first shit job out of campus, earning 20K a month writing about gardening and landscaping, for crying out loud! I almost finished John Green’s Fault In Our Stars in Dar at 2am. With a few pages to go, I stopped and walked out of the hotel room balcony which opened out to the sea, heart heavy with emotions leaping and weirdly feeling aroused with the impending emptiness that the end of the book spelt. I finished This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz when my campus chum, Kagame was visiting from Canada, a reunion that was happening after seven years. Later we polished off a bottle of whisky at Explorer Tavern, and I remember blurting out at the tail end of his spiel about shit he did to get to where he is now; “Are you happy?” I regretted that question immediately, because in his typical Kagame brutality, he slammed me against the wall with one disgusted statement; “What is this, campus all over again where we were caught up in figuring out if our happiness shapes our worlds? Fuck it, Biko, we are grown now, we don’t talk about happiness anymore. We live life.” I stood up and left for the bathroom feeling like an over emotional girl on her menses. Well, screw you, Kagame.
The feeling these books elicited remained with me for days.
I finished The Book Thief at 3am when I couldn’t sleep. I sat in darkness for a long time feeling like a deer caught in blinding headlights. The next day I walked around slightly depressed, confident that I’d never find another book like that. I googled Zusac feverishly, just to see what he looked like. How can anyone write such a tragic and overwhelming book? I went on Amazon and searched for more of his work. Then I realized that what I actually wanted to do was shake his hand, and reaffirm that under his skin, his blood was warm like mine. The feeling persisted. This gloom. This throbbing irony. This underwhelming feeling that an overwhelming book brings you to in the end. Then I asked Aleya, a lover of books, about it and she said sagely, Biko, you are having what is called a Book Hangover.
I won’t spoil this for you, but The Book Thief is a book narrated by death. Yes. It’s set during World War 2, in a small Nazi German town. There you will meet Liesel a nine year old girl. And you will meet Hans. There is a violin, from which this story – a story of characters haunted by war and their own choices – is hung from. Quarter way through the book you will walk into a Jew, hiding in the basement of a house belonging to a German. You will also find a violin in the kitchen of that house, played by a woman – Rosa- who insists on sulking throughout this book. Then of course there is death, looking over these doomed souls with his morbid sense of humour. The book stayed on the New York Best Seller for 230 weeks.
Zusac writes these ghoulishly beautiful sentences that if you watered daily would grow into a short-stemmed rose without thorns. Consider this: “His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.” Or when death says: “I’m haunted by humans.”
I’m a very slow reader, mainly because I nurse massive literary abandonment issues. I don’t want to leave behind beautiful sentences. For what? I go back to chapters and re-read them, afraid that I might have missed a phrase, an idiom, an analogy. I want to suck every marrow off the page, until it whistles with emptiness as wind blows through it. And I want to put these gorgeous paragraphs in my wallet and peek at them in traffic jams when I’m doing nothing. So I jealously re-read pages and lines.
It took me almost a month to finish The Book Thief. The result of this was a wallet bulging with paragraphs. The only thing more beautiful than money in your wallet are beautiful words.
In the end The Book Thief left me feeling cheated. But I should have predicted this outcome given that death was controlling the narrative. Advice to you? Create space in your wallet. Zusak is coming to you with a mallet.