Honorable Theft

The_Book_ThiefYoung adult literature can be amazingly profound. My curiosity about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief bubbled to the surface after the movie was released last weekend. I didn’t see it, along with thousands of others, because of its very limited theatrical release. I’m sure you know that distressing feeling when you type your zip code into Fandango and come up with zero results. Short of going all the way into New York City just to see a movie, I was pretty much out of luck. The silver lining is that it made me read the book. I’m not sure what I was expecting (I can also be the victim of hype), but what I found was deeply engrossing while also being deeply disturbing. Spoiler alert!

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany. It is narrated by Death. The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, represents the plight of all people; we have no control over when, where, or to whom we’re born. With parents considered enemies of the state, the Book Thief is raised by foster parents who are German, but who are also poor. They are good people, and much of the tension in the book revolves around their hiding a Jewish friend in their small house. The convention of Death as a narrator predates George Pendle’s Death: A Life, by three years. Although in the end Death is the only survivor, he is remarkably sympathetic to the human condition. Death also supplies the main religious observations in a book otherwise devoid of God. When Death attempts to pray during the horrors of war, a devastating conclusion is drawn: “God never says anything.” Is that why Veteran’s Day celebrations tend to be so silent? There may not be any atheists in foxholes, but there’s no God there either.

As Death stalks all those who are dear to her, Liesel finds her comfort in books. Although she begins the story illiterate, and although books are difficult to find in a poor family in a nation at war, Liesel discovers that words have a power that even dictators can’t steal. Her love of reading saves her life as her street is obliterated in an air raid. Even Death has to question the futility of war. In my most idealistic of moments, I hold the conviction that many of the world’s evils would be eliminated if people just read more. We would discover, for example, that even the devastation of war can be overcome by words. The only book Death is portrayed as reading is the Book Thief’s life story. And this gives Death pause, because even young adult literature can be amazingly profound.

Memento Mori

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

Those of you who’ve listened to my podcasts have no doubt noticed my reference to George Pendle’s, Death: A Life (Three Rivers Press, 2008). This fictitious account of Death’s memoir, all things considered, is a fun read and a wild romp through various ancient religions. Postulating a loveable, if somewhat obtuse, God (no more obtuse, however, than the supreme being in Harold Bloom’s Book of J) Pendle populates his mythological world with a vast array of embodiments, personifications and supernatural beings, all slightly neurotic, and more or less on an equal playing field. Although the book is intended as fun, it does offer some serious consideration to the phenomenon of death.

One of the earliest intimations that Homo sapiens had begun to consider religious sensibilities is burial, the concomitant state to death. Burial serves an important biological function of preventing the diseases borne of putrefaction from infecting others, but it also serves as a condensed statement of a fledgling belief in an afterlife in some form. Even Neanderthal burials have been discovered with rudimentary grave goods. Concern for the wellbeing of the departed is surely a religious sentiment. Death and religion are never far from each other. Even the early Mesopotamians trembled at the etemmu, their version of a ghost, and marked it with the divine determinative on their clay tablets. Religion has been a fine-turned handle that humans have used to get a grip on death.

That is not to say, of course, that death is religion’s only concern, but there is some wisdom in that old saying that people seek out their religious leaders when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched.” Mesopotamian (and Hebrew Bible, for that matter) afterlife was a gloomy prospect, yet it was certainly brighter than the alternative of the simple cessation of biological functions. Death as a concept inserts meaning into the all-too-natural act of dying. Not a religion exists that does not address itself to this great leveler of all human aspirations. If at times it seems that my posts tend toward the macabre, peopled with vampires, werewolves, zombies and Republicans, bear in mind that such creatures of the night are expressions of the essentially human and indisputably religious preoccupation with death. Its unbeating heart transfuses life to religion.