Summary of Prologue: A Mountain Range of Rubble
“Death and Chocolate”; “Beside the Railway Line”; “The Eclipse”
The narrator of the story is Death. He announces to the reader “You are going to die” (p. 3). He says not to be afraid because he is fair and will attempt to be cheerful about the topic. He always notices the colors first when he comes to take souls, and then the humans. Most people do not see all the colors of the day, but Death sees thousands of sky colors when he comes to pick up the souls and take them gently away. Those who die are not the problem for him because everyone dies. He is mostly disturbed by the survivors: “They have punctured hearts” (p 5). One survivor he will tell about is the little girl called the book thief whom he saw three times.
The first scene is white. It took place in the snow by a railway line. A mother and her daughter were in despair because the girl's little brother had died on the train, and the guards only allowed the mother and daughter off to look at the corpse. The guards speak German. They take the corpse and mother and girl (the book thief) to the next stop where the boy is buried.
The second scene is black where an airplane crash is smoking. A boy comes with the book thief to look at the crash and takes out a teddy bear and puts it into the airplane next to the dead pilot as Death arrives and takes the man's soul.
The third scene is red, a street where kids play in a German town one minute, and then bombs are dropping, and within minutes Death has to carry away hundreds of souls. The book thief is weeping on the rubble, clutching a book she herself had written. Death takes her book and reads it many times over the years. It is the story of her survival. This book is her story.
Commentary on Prologue: A Mountain Range of Rubble
Zusak introduces his remarkable poetic style of brief scenes, flashing colors and objects, and poignant impressions of the story of Liesel Meminger, a little German girl who calls herself the Book Thief. Death is an appropriate narrator for Hitler's Germany during World War II, for almost everyone in the story dies except Liesel. The action takes place between 1938 and 1943 when Liesel is coming of age during the war. Even Death himself is interested in her story of survival. He takes it as a test case to see if human existence is worth it. The three death scenes he describes briefly will be elucidated in the narrative. These are the three times Death saw Liesel in person as he came for other people. The book she wrote about her life is what he bases the rest of the story on.
Death has his own personality. Instead of being cruel and heartless, he represents himself as full of pity for those he takes, but especially for the survivors. He tries to distract himself from the survivors by noting the colors of the sky and other details. Death's reaction to the war is one of astonishment. He does not understand human behavior and wants to see how Liesel can survive such horror. She represents the human spirit that cannot be defeated.
Zusak introduces his narrative style here, which is mostly chronological and straightforward, based on Liesel's life between 1938 and 1943. However, he constantly foreshadows things to come, explaining when a character does not have long to live or the manner of his or her death, looking forward or backward to the disasters of war. The action is frequently interrupted in the middle of a page with a section set off in asterisks and larger type, like a footnote or an aside, interpreting events or pointing out an irony. These comments make us constantly aware of the presence of Death's character and of Death's larger perspective on things, for these interruptions are in his voice, like the voice over commentary on a film.
Text: Zusak, Markus, The Book Thief, Illustrations by Trudy White, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.