Several years ago I met a book that changed my literary life (how pretentious that sounds - but I mean it in the purest, most genuine sense). With a story I would never forget and always love. I was haunted by The Book Thief, just as it's narrator is haunted by humans. Remember that line from East of Eden about Tom and his book-reading? How "he crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands." Well, that's how I read The Book Thief.
Markus Zusak changed the way I think about story and poetry and metaphor and reality and how they all layer together. I love the risks he took in writing a story that was both too charming and too horrifying. It is a story with some of the greatest, most vulnerable, real, and human characters in modern writing. It is a story of a girl - a stealer and writer of books, an accordionist, a best friend, of Germans and Jews and one of the most nightmarish times in history, of a man with feathery hair and the human capacity to go on.
I was so pleased when The Book Thief was chosen as the fall 2012 selection for One Book, One Chicago and further elated to hear it was taking stage at the Steppenwolf Theatre. I saw the play this weekend, extremely curious for how they would transform such a complex and compelling story into a live production, much less depict Death as the narrator and storyteller.
It was an incredibly simple, small, and intimate show. Death, or "Him" as he is called in the playbook, takes the stage and really never leaves. A remarkably vulnerable, compassionate, yet dutiful collector of souls, He introduces the story of Liesel Meminger, the book thief.
"It's one of the small stories I carry, each 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."
Kind of like Les Miserables, I had read and heard and loved so much about the story, that I made it near impossible for the theatrical production to live up to such standards. I read an interview once with Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist), where he said, "A book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader."
Regardless, I loved it. It is a book and a play strewn with gems, lines I wish I had written. And half the theatre was in tears at the climax of the show.
The story concludes with our narrator's final encounter with Liesel, the stealer of books:
"I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race - that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.
None of those things, however came out of my mouth.
All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.
I am haunted by humans."