Reading The Book Thief in Kashmir — A Review by Toiba Paul

Jul 7, 2021

Toiba Paul presents her review of “The Book Thief”, the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak that was also adapted into a popular film. Toiba’s review more specifically addresses the commonalities of the human experience shared between those who lived in wartime Germany with the Nazi regime in power and those who have live in Kashmir. While no direct analogy is perfect, the review focuses on individual experiences and suffering brought about by war and relates these back and forth between the world depicted in the novel and the world that surrounds people living in Kashmir. Since literature and fiction are particularly adept in communicating individual experiences of circumstances as vast as war, Paul is effective in conveying the similitude that exists between the Kashmiri experience under war with that of the characters in Zusak’s novel. In doing so, the young writer makes a compelling case for why “The Book Thief” should be read widely in Kashmir and how it can help contextualize the unaddressed experiences of those who live or have had to live under brutal violence and repression.

From book burning in Nazi Germany in 1930s to the internet blockade in Kashmir in 2019-2020, a core similarity is to be found in the circumstances imposed on two peoples: the state of being deprived of the basic right to education and the basic right to formulate an opinion that is not in line with the powers that be. Long time before the rule of Adolf Hitler, a German poet named Henrich Heine said whenever books are burned, humans are destined to be burned too, and it became the tragic reality of Germany when the Nazi regime took over. Early on, a ceremony of burning books was held by the German Students' Union to sabotage and crush any anti-Nazi ideas. Hitler is believed to have been anti-intellectual especially when it came to Jewish intellectualism and thought, which he campaigned against for its definite end in the cultural landscape of Germany at that time. Throughout history, education has had the power to affect change and for this reason, Hitler feared books. He dismissed any ideology that was against his doctrines and he worked to destroy the European intellectual milieu that opposed his fascist and homogenising political stance.

Books voice opinions and for the oppressed what is written in them and what is read can be interpreted as a form of revolt by those who want to impose a singular form of thinking. The book burning incidents from Nazi Germany form the plotline of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a novel set in the backdrop of World War II. The book is about a nine-year-old girl, Liesel Meminger, who lives with her foster parents Hans and Rosa Huberman. Liesel is a book thief, apparently. She starts stealing books even though she does not know how to read, but her father teaches her to read and write later on as the story progresses. She not only steals books that Nazi regime wants to destroy but also writes one which becomes the symbol of her rebellion. This book echoes the woeful tales of conflict-ridden and war-struck places. The brutalities portrayed in the book can be retraced through the last three decade of Kashmir history and politics. From killings of innocents to depriving people of basic forms of communication, Kashmir has witnessed it all. It is perhaps for this reason, and many others, that The Book Thief may resonate with readers in the valley.

Liesel Mimenger’s tale reflects the wretched story of a girl who has lost almost everything to the fight for survival and the struggle of freedom from a despotic and genocidal regime. Liesel’s story symbolises the tale of every Kashmiri who has lived such kind of a political chaos and threat to life and personal safety in the most militarised zone on earth. The severe losses that she faces during the course of the novel have been witnessed in a real situation by a variety of people living in Kashmir, particularly during the 90s. The horrendous times, grief, sadness, cruelty and violence brings Liesel and Kashmir to the same position in that experiential sense. The political upheaval from past decades has thwarted Kashmir away from political, social and economic progress. Depriving people of basic rights time and again and treating a particular community as such induces the mindset that they actually deserve such treatment—turning the valley into a hornets nest where people are coerced to accept the abnormal as normal. The normalisation of violence, alienation, marginalisation, coercion and threat to life and liberty expose some of similarities that we find in Zusak’s novel and the world that is not just depicted in Kashmiri literature but is also appears in news headlines.

At a personal level, Liesel is like any child who has her personal problems; but more than that she is a young girl who loses her six-year-old brother and is given up for adoption by her mother to ensure her and her brother’s survival. A little girl who has so much already to deal with, is then also tasked with surviving the Holocaust. The character and the theme of the book appeals the youth of Kashmir who are particularly conscious of the set of conditions that have dictated life in their homeland. Kashmir has suffered the brutalities of an oppressive regime since Dogra rule followed by the Accession by India. This violence has claimed tens of thousands of lives throughout Kashmir’s history. Clampdown, curfews, killings, arrests, abuse of human rights, communication gags and internet shutdowns have hit all Kashmiris hard throughout the years. At an individual and experiential level, Liesel goes through the same that so many have gone through in Kashmir.

Even Rosa and Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster parents, are racked with much grief and pain. The character of Hans Hubermann is inspired by real world events. In his childhood, Markus Zusak’s mother told him the story of a man who was whipped and penalised for giving a piece of bread to a Jew being taken to jail. This incident had a striking effect on Zusak’s young mind, which motivated him to write The Book Thief. Occurrences such as these have been many in Kashmir, leaving a prominent impact on the minds of its people and their collective and individual memories. Be it Kunan-Poshopora, the Gawkadal massacre or so many other horrific events, these happenings have been ingrained in the minds of people and they have been passed on from one generation to the next—bringing about a limited range of literature drawing from the collective memory of such events.

In a similar manner, Leisel’s foster mother, Rosa Hubermann, has lost her children already and she has been deeply traumatised that even the child she adopts is not able to bring back the happiness that children give to life. Kashmir has seen many Rosas who had to bury their children on the path of the struggle for freedom. Some do not even know whether their sons and daughters are alive because they were taken to jails without written records or there is a lack of information about their whereabouts. Such women are called “half mothers” in Kashmir and, in certain ways, they share the traumatised psyche that characterises Rosa in Zusak’s novel, which presents remarkable character portrayals that are especially relatable to those who have known such loss and grief. A reader feels Rosa’s pain and agony who seems hardened by it and apparently comes across as intimidating, but the severe pain she has suffered justifies much of her behaviour. Whenever she hears a knock at the door she gets nervous and anxious because of the distress caused by the Nazi forces. The same anguish is found in what Kashmir mothers have had to deal with during crackdowns, cordons, curfews and search operations since the last few decades.

From wailing mothers to their lost sons, the gradient of pain is immeasurable in the world that is depicted in The Book Thief and in the lived reality and the memory of devastation for a variety of people in Kashmir. In the novel, one of the main characters, Max Vandenburg, a Jewish fist fighter, is forced to live in the basement of Hubermann household to stay safe from the Nazis. Having to stay in hiding or absconding because of their identity is something that Kashmiris are highly familiar with. In symbolic terms, Max stands for every native Kashmiri who has been put under several degrees of siege. The affliction and torture he suffers from can be understood by certain incidents where he asks Liesel to tell him what the sky and the sun looks like because he has been in basement under enforced confinement for so long that he doesn’t even remember such rudimentary things. This somewhat reflects that state and condition of Kashmiris during months of lockdowns and curfews where they forget about basic things—while the condition of feeling stuck and unable to move festers particularly in Kashmiri youth who have had to cope with losing many productive years. The basement also resembles the torture cells and jails where specific are or have been Kashmiris detained and nobody ever gets to hear from them.

Another character, Rudy Stiener, a young child who is just falling in love with his best friend, Liesel, is killed because of a bombing while in Kashmir who knows how many children have suffered from the same fate. During the turbulent 90s, no account of deaths was kept, primarily because we lived in the pre-internet and pre-digital era. The psychological toll of the turmoil is too high and not completely documented yet.

Another important theme that is central to the novel is the use of words and their importance and value. We know how much power words carry. Words can divide and unify people. It was because of words that Hitler was able to do what he didotherwise Nazi Germany would not existed in the first place. Be it words of love or hatred, they have a colossal impact. When Max Vandenburg leaves, he gifts Liesel with a book titled The Word Shaker, a volume he has written himself.  He writes about their friendship and their bond in the book, and how Liesel gave him the strength in such extremely hopeless times. This book communicates the notion that words are more powerful than any force in the world and they have the ability to correct all the wrongs. In his writing, Max also mentions that Hitler also used words, not guns. This makes it clear that words are of utmost importance in any occupation where language and vocabulary are selective and selected by those in power, while other words are completely discarded or banned from use. The use of certain words and language can lead people to be jailed for speaking their minds. There is censorship on all sorts of ideas and terms while the media is put under surveillance. Under such conditions, people are crippled for holding an opinion or expressing certain views considered seditious or inflammatory by those who have both power and authority to make such accusations and then enforce laws that they themselves have set in place.

Even though at the beginning Liesel does not know how to read and write, as the story moves ahead we see Hans Hubermann spending a great deal of time teaching Liesel how become fluent and literate. He turns the basement into a sort of school for her, where she practices both reading and writing. Hans enlightens Liesel by teaching her, he does not keep her ignorant of things happening in their world—which later marks the beginning of her rebellious story. At the end of the novel, we see Liesel writing her own book which becomes her symbol of protest.

In that sense, Hans resembles every father in Kashmir who—no matter how bad the situation—wants his kids to have good education and the ability to be critical and independent in thought. Despite everyday shutdowns, routine violence and the resulting economic crisis that Kashmir suffers from due to all of this, a father never asks his children to sit back because they know that words and education can only change and reform the situation that we are dealing with.

The narrator of this story found in Zusak’s novel is a character named Death, as the entire novel is narrated by death personified by itself. Among Kashmiris who have survived the last three decades, death is perhaps the most common companion, such that even in that there are semblances with Zusak’s novel. We get to know at the beginning of the story that so many characters are getting killed but the reader remains hooked to the plot in the bid to know how every character reached such an end. In Kashmir, there is a path that everybody knows will lead to death, yet some people leave everything behind and submit themselves to this particular path. Bloodshed and violence have become an everyday normal, making people insensitive and thick-skinned as well. At the end of The Book Thief, Death as the narrator confesses, “I am haunted by humans”— which seems to be the biggest irony. Humans have become so vicious and bestial that even Death is petrified of them and their horrific ways. Death here seems to carry an important and serious message for people all over the world that this slaughter of humankind and innocence needs to end along with the war that brings such viciousness. Only if humans can be considerate to one another and learn lessons of empathy, the world can be a better place for all of us to live in.

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About the Contributor

Toiba Khurshid Paul has completed her BA Honours in English Language and Literature from Islamic University of Science and Technology (Pulwama). She is an avid reader and maintains a great interest in the analysis of literary works. Toiba has also recently completed her academic research under the title of “Women and war: Poetic Escape of the Doubly Marginalised”, which took the shape of her first formal academic publication. She intends on continuing with writing and publishing of this sort while further developing her interest in politics, literature and psychology.