Let me give you a heads up here. This book, The Book Thief, is about this little girl in Munich. It’s set against the backdrop of the Second World War. It’s the best book I have ever read so far. I have put down my favourite chapter from the book. It’s a tiny excerpt, one of the best bits nevertheless. Markus Zusak turned into my favourite author after this book, for his simplicity, and hard-hitting manner of writing.
So here’s what happened before this chapter. Liesel (the main character, the little girl) has stolen a book. She thinks she was seen by the Mayor’s wife (whom she has never spoken to before). But after she meets the mayor’s wife, when the mayor’s wife says nothing to Liesel’s mother, she is almost convinced that she wasn’t seen after all, and that she has gotten away with the theft. Here’s how it continues.
A LITTLE SOMETHING TO
DAMPEN THE EUPHORIA
She had gotten away with nothing.
The mayor’s wife had seen her, all right.
She was just waiting for the right moment.
A few weeks passed.
Soccer on Himmel Street.
Reading The Shoulder Shrug between two and three o’clock each morning, post-nightmare, or during the
afternoon, in the basement.
Another benign visit to the mayor’s house.
All was lovely.
When Liesel next visited, minus Rudy, the opportunity presented itself. It was a pickup day.
The mayor’s wife opened the door and she was not holding the bag, like she normally would. Instead, she stepped aside and motioned with her chalky hand and wrist for the girl to enter.
“I’m just here for the washing.” Liesel’s blood had dried inside of her. It crumbled. She almost broke into pieces on the steps.
The woman said her first word to her then. She reached out, cold-fingered, and said, “Warte—wait.” When she was sure the girl had steadied, she turned and walked hastily back inside.
“Thank God,” Liesel exhaled. “She’s getting it.” It being the washing.
What the woman returned with, however, was nothing of the sort.
When she came and stood with an impossibly frail steadfastness, she was holding a tower of books against her stomach, from her navel to the beginnings of her breasts. She looked so vulnerable in the monstrous doorway. Long, light eyelashes and just the slightest twinge of expression. A suggestion.
Come and see, it said.
She’s going to torture me, Liesel decided. She’s going to take me inside, light the fireplace, and throw me in, books and all. Or she’ll lock me in the basement without any food.
For some reason, though—most likely the lure of the books—she found herself walking in. The squeaking of her shoes on the wooden floorboards made her cringe, and when she hit a sore spot, inducing the wood to groan, she almost stopped. The mayor’s wife was not deterred. She only looked briefly behind and continued on, to a chestnut-colored door. Now her face asked a question.
Are you ready?
Liesel craned her neck a little, as if she might see over the door that stood in her way. Clearly, that was the cue to open it.
“Jesus, Mary . . .”
She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-coloured books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.
With wonder, she smiled.
That such a room existed!
Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise. She could feel the eyes of the woman traveling her body, and when she looked at her, they had rested on her face.
There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it.
The two words stood among acres and acres of vacant, wooden-floored land. The books were miles away.
The woman nodded.
Yes, you can.
Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps. She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet. She used both hands. She raced them. One shelf against the other. And she laughed. Her voice was sprawled out, high in her throat, and when she eventually stopped and stood in the middle of the room, she spent many minutes looking from the shelves to her fingers and back again.
How many books had she touched?
How many had she felt?
She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her palm to feel the small hurdle of each book. It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didn’t dare disturb them. They were too perfect.
To her left, she saw the woman again, standing by a large desk, still holding the small tower against her torso. She stood with a delighted crookedness. A smile appeared to have paralyzed her lips.
“Do you want me to—?”
Liesel didn’t finish the question but actually performed what she was going to ask, walking over and taking the books gently from the woman’s arms. She then placed them into the missing piece in the shelf, by the slightly open window. The outside cold was streaming in.
For a moment, she considered closing it, but thought better of it. This was not her house, and the situation was not to be tampered with. Instead, she returned to the lady behind her, whose smile gave the appearance now of a bruise and whose arms were hanging slenderly at each side. Like girls’ arms.
An awkwardness treated itself to the room, and Liesel took a final, fleeting glance at the walls of books. In her mouth, the words fidgeted, but they came out in a rush. “I should go.”
It took three attempts to leave.
She waited in the hallway for a few minutes, but the woman didn’t come, and when Liesel returned to the entrance of the room, she saw her sitting at the desk, staring blankly at one of the books. She chose not to disturb her. In the hallway, she picked up the washing.
This time, she avoided the sore spot in the floorboards, walking the long length of the corridor, favoring the left-hand wall. When she closed the door behind her, a brass clank sounded in her ear, and with the washing next to her, she stroked the flesh of the wood. “Get going,” she said.
At first, she walked home dazed.
The surreal experience with the roomful of books and the stunned, broken woman walked alongside her. She could see it on the buildings, like a play. Perhaps it was similar to the way Papa had his Mein Kampf revelation. Wherever she looked, Liesel saw the mayor’s wife with the books piled up in her arms. Around corners, she could hear the shuffle of her own hands, disturbing the shelves. She saw the open window, the chandelier of lovely light, and she saw herself leaving, without so much as a word of thanks.
Soon, her sedated condition transformed to harassment and self-loathing. She began to rebuke herself.
“You said nothing.” Her head shook vigorously, among the hurried footsteps. “Not a ‘goodbye.’ Not a ‘thank you.’ Not a ‘that’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.’ Nothing!” Certainly, she was a book thief, but that didn’t mean she should have no manners at all. It didn’t mean she couldn’t be polite.
She walked a good few minutes, struggling with indecision.
On Munich Street, it came to an end.
Just as she could make out the sign that said STEINER— SCHNEIDERMEISTER, she turned and ran back.
This time, there was no hesitation.
She thumped the door, sending an echo of brass through the wood.
It was not the mayor’s wife, but the mayor himself who stood before her. In her hurry, Liesel had neglected to notice the car that sat out front, on the street.
Mustached and black-suited, the man spoke. “Can I help you?”
Liesel could say nothing. Not yet. She was bent over, short of air, and fortunately, the woman arrived when she’d at least partially recovered. Ilsa Hermann stood behind her husband, to the side.
“I forgot,” Liesel said. She lifted the bag and addressed the mayor’s wife. Despite the forced labor of breath, she fed the words through the gap in the doorway—between the mayor and the frame— to the woman. Such was her effort to breathe that the words escaped only a few at a time. “I forgot . . . I mean, I just . . . wanted,” she said, “to . . . thank you.”
The mayor’s wife bruised herself again. Coming forward to stand beside her husband, she nodded very faintly, waited, and closed the door.
It took Liesel a minute or so to leave.
She smiled at the steps.