How do we come to read books that we ordinarily would try to avoid?
As shared yesterday, my avoidance of literature that uses war as the setting or background started many years ago. Over the past couple of years though, four books in particular have crossed ‘no-man’s land’ and entered my sphere of reading experience:
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2006)
The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982, published posthumously)
The Zookeeper’s War by Stephen Conte (2007)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusack (2005)
When The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was handed to me by one of my first book group ladies, I had no prior knowledge of the book. The naive premise as shown in the opening chapters with young Bruno arriving home from school and finding his home is being ‘packed’ as they are all going on a ‘great adventure’–his father’s job requires them to relocate’, didn’t prepare me for the story to come.
Bruno’s world has been privileged, he has been taught to be polite, respectful and kind–all the attributes you would want in a young boy. He was full of mischief (in the typical way of 9 year olds) and is totally engrossed in his world of exploring, playing with his friends, having fun, but not going into rooms ‘–such as Father’s office, which was Out of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions--’
We learn ‘the Fury’ has been to dinner and that there are ‘many visitors to the house–men in fantastic uniforms, women with typewriters that he had to keep his mucky hands off–’
Then Bruno’s world is turned upside down–he has to leave the home he loves, the friends he loves, the life he loves as his Father has ‘A job that needs a very special man to do…’ his mother asks, ‘You wouldn’t want Father to go to his new job on his own and be lonely there, would you?’
A picture of genteel society and a happy home life are painted, but balanced with the dark underside of this story, the book as a whole is quite shocking.
While there has been criticism about the plot being improbable and that the story actually profanes the reality of the death camps in World War II, historians such as Kathryn Hughes argue that ‘Bruno’s innocence comes to stand for the wilful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses.’
Similarly in The Zookeeper’s War, where Conte writes about an Australian woman, married to a German zookeeper, during the Fall of Berlin, the author points to the general populace’s ignorance of Nazi atrocities. He argues that they didn’t want to know.
Choosing the backdrop of the Zoo to showcase the message was for me a powerful ploy. In this book, more than in any other, I really saw how the day-to-day life of civilians were affected by the presence of war throughout their country. Most were just trying to survive by keeping their heads down and minding their own business.
This type of attitude of course, doesn’t leave any room for heroism in times of great adversity such as war. We know the inspiring stories of people such as Oskar Schindler who put their own lives at risk to save others.
This is an underlying theme of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, where he shows the strength of individuals and the many complex motivations for actions they take.
Having Death as the narrator of the book was an intriguing device as he shows Death to be sympathetic to mankind and disliking of all the despair and destruction brought upon humans by War. I would have imagined Death enjoying and being friends with War so just the very contrariness of this opens the reader to a whole new level of understanding.
Death’s final pronouncement at the end of the book that he is ‘…haunted by humans’ shows his sympathy for the humans whose souls he carries. Death cannot reconcile the astonishing cruelty and compassion of which humans are simultaneously capable of.
And so we come to The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig’s possibly unfinished novel which was published posthumously. Written in the 1930s as Zweig was driven by the Nazis into exile, the manuscript was found amongst his papers after his suicide in 1942.
The year is 1919 and the protagonist, Christine Hoflehner, an Austrian Postal clerk feels as defeated as her country, the war has ended but poverty has not: “Now it’s creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry and bold, and eating what’s left in the gutters of the war.“
Some describe this as a ‘Cinderella’ story–but the Prince doesn’t actually come and find her! The story is fierce, sad, moving and ultimately, frightening as we journey with Christine and then Ferdinand as they spiral downward in Zweig’s portrait of a world coming horribly to an end.
So there we have four books, each of which have approached the subject of war and its resulting damage with a different and original premise.
I’m pleased to have read them all.
Thank you Book Groups!
The question I must ask then is, when does a book become more pleasurable than disturbing?