When I finished writing The Book Thief in the early hours of an August morning in 2004, I felt what every writer feels at the end of a book – exhilaration, devastation, and disbelief. Finally, it was over. It wasn’t until time went by that I realised I had set out, like always, to write a book that really meant something to me, but this one had turned out to mean everything.
To say that I thought The Book Thief would be my least successful book seems like a bit of a joke now, but that was truly how I felt as it grew and grew beneath me, in the writing. The initial thought had been a hundred-page novella. It had become a 580-page novel set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death. I honestly felt it was doomed to fail, but I was always strangely compelled to write on. I forgot completely about the audience and wrote purely towards my own vision, and I guess that’s how it became the book it did. I knew it could be criticised for many things, but not for lack of ambition or ideas. Whether or not that ambition is fully realised is up to the reader, and if I’ve learned anything in the eight years since the book’s release, it’s that you can never snatch it back to you. It is what it is. The book remains the same.
As it stands now, I remember those final hours of writing, and how I sat in a small motel room in Melbourne, ploughing through the entire last part of the novel. I was a complete emotional wreck, but how could I not be? It was one of the hardest-but-happiest moments I’ve ever had.
Since then, as the book has travelled on, with its various victories and fair share of knocks along the way, it’s almost like another version of me has written it. Now and then, I look back on myself in that motel room, fighting on and finishing, and letting nothing get in my way. Despite everything I’d do differently if I were writing it today, if I could lean in and whisper anything in my ear, it would most likely be this:
‘Keep going. You’re a mess and you’re happy.’ It’s probably the best a writer can be.
Finally, the lasting success of any book comes down to one thing, and that’s the generosity of its audience – and this book has been afforded that privilege more than I can believe. To all of those readers out there who have been so good to The Book Thief, and to me, I can’t thank you enough. I’m more grateful than I can say.
Sydney, October, 2013.
A MOUNTAIN RANGE OF RUBBLE
in which our narrator introduces:
himself – the colours
– and the book thief
DEATH AND CHOCOLATE
First the colours.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT
Does this worry you?
I urge you – don’t be afraid.
I’m nothing if not fair.
Of course, an introduction.
Where are my manners?
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.
The question is, what colour will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
Personally, I like a chocolate-coloured sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every colour I see – the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavours, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.
A SMALL THEORY
People observe the colours of a day only at
its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite
clear that a day merges through a multitude
of shades and intonations, with each passing
moment. A single hour can consist of
thousands of different colours. Waxy yellows,
cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line
of work, I make it a point to notice them.
As I’ve been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I’ve been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style holiday destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski-trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision – to make distraction my holiday. Needless to say, I holiday in increments. In colours.
Still, it’s possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a holiday? What does he need distraction from?
Which brings me to my next point. It’s the leftover humans.
They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions, I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colours to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling amongst the jigsaw puzzle of realisation, despair and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs.
Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and colour. It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors – an expert at being left behind.
It’s just a small story really, about, amongst other things:
- a girl
- some words
- an accordionist
- some fanatical Germans
- a Jewish fist-fighter
- and quite a lot of thievery.
I saw the book thief three times.
BESIDE THE RAILWAY LINE
First up is something white. Of the blinding kind.
Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a colour and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well I’m here to tell you that it is. White is without question a colour, and personally, I don’t think you want to argue.
A REASSURING ANNOUNCEMENT
Please, be calm, despite that previous threat.
I am all bluster –
I am not violent. I am not malicious.
I am a result.
Yes, it was white.
It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it had pulled it on, the way you pull on a jumper. Next to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice.
As you might expect, someone had died.
They couldn’t just leave him on the ground. For now it wasn’t such a problem, but very soon, the track ahead would be cleared and the train would need to move on.
There were two guards.
There was a mother and her daughter. One corpse.
The mother, the girl and the corpse remained stubborn and silent.
‘Well, what else do you want me to do?’
The guards were tall and short. The tall one always spoke first, though he was not in charge. He looked at the smaller, rounder one. The one with the juicy red face.
‘Well,’ was the response, ‘we can’t just leave them like this, can we?’
The tall one was losing patience. ‘Why not?’
And the smaller one damn near exploded. He looked up at the tall one’s chin and cried, ‘Spinnst du? Are you stupid!?’ The abhorrence on his cheeks was growing thicker by the moment. His skin widened. ‘Come on,’ he said, traipsing through the snow. ‘We’ll carry all three of them back on if we have to. We’ll notify the next stop.’
As for me, I had already made the most elementary of mistakes. I can’t explain to you the severity of my self-disappointment. Originally, I’d done everything right:
I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckled – I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched.
Twenty-three minutes later, when the train was stopped, I climbed out with them.
A small soul was in my arms. I stood a little to the right.
The dynamic train guard duo made their way back to the mother, the girl and the small male corpse. I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. I’m surprised the guards didn’t notice me as they walked by. The world was sagging now, under the weight of all that snow.
Perhaps ten metres to my left, the pale, empty-stomached girl was standing, frost-stricken.
Her mouth jittered.
Her cold arms were folded.
Tears were frozen to the book thief ’s face.
Excerpted from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Copyright © 2005 by Markus Zusak.
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