In the eighty-fourth chapter of The Book Thief, it’s the end of the world. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
It’s time for all of this to (almost) come to an end.
CH. 84: THE END OF THE WORLD (Part II)
Now I understand why Death makes the distinction between the two parts. The world can end twice and we’re just about to find out how that can be possible.
Almost all of the words are fading now. The black book is disintegrating under the weight of my travels. That’s another reason for telling this story. What did we say earlier? Say something enough times and you never forget it. Also, I can tell you what happened after the book thief’s words had stopped, and how I came to know her story in the first place. Like this.
I enjoy the reference to the importance of oral storytelling and the reminder that we must never forget the atrocities of war, most especially what was done to the Jews and how many lives were torn apart and lost by the second world war. I also can’t help but feel sad that this is all ending, especially in this way.
It’s only now that I remember that Death essentially told us the ending to all of this way back at the beginning of the book, that he told us he picked up The Book Thief as the ground was littered with bodies. Because I took such a long route to read this book, I had long forgotten that detail, or the details Death had given us way back in chapter four about how he witnessed the book thief. Looking back on those now….holy shit, that was the answer, right there, waiting for me.
Picture yourself walking down Himmel Street in the dark. Your hair is getting wet and the air pressure is on the verge of drastic change. The first bomb hits Tommy Müller’s apartment block. His face twitches innocently in his sleep and I kneel at his bed. Next, his sister. Kristina’s feet are sticking out from under the blanket. They match the hopscotch footprints on the street. Her little toes. Their mother sleeps a few feet away. Four cigarettes sit disfigured in her ashtray, and the roofless ceiling is hot plate red. Himmel Street is burning.
My first thought was one of abject terror, because the realization hit: We were taking a second trip through that night where everything ended for Liesel Meminger. More than ever, Zusak’s detached tone actually benefits the narrative by painting us a picture of serene calm in a moment of utter destruction.
Everyone dies. They sleep, and they die.
Zusak cycles through the residents of Himmel, focusing on the four streets that comprise most of this story.
At 31 Himmel Street, Frau Holtzapfel appeared to be waiting for me in the kitchen. A broken cup was in front of her and in a last moment of awakeness, her face seemed to ask just what in the hell had taken me so long.
I started getting this funny feeling, watching these characters die in my mind, able to complete the images in my head, and knowing that it’s now my turn as the reader to say goodbye to them. Maybe that’s why Zusak runs through this a second time. We never got any sort of closure. While their deaths won’t heal much of the pain we feel as readers, maybe we can begin to accept it.
Frau Diller is obliterated. The Fielders are taken all at once. Death stops to take his time in the Steiner house, stopping to tussle hair or bending down to give a kiss, pausing when he reaches Rudy Steiner.
The boy slept. His candlelit hair ignited the bed, and I picked both him and Bettina up with their souls still in the blanket. If nothing else, they died fast and they were warm. The boy from the plane, I thought. The one with the teddy bear. Where was Rudy’s comfort? Where was someone to alleviate this robbery of his life? Who was there to soothe him as life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet?
There was only me.
Rudy–brave, courageous Rudy–taken in a second while he slept, never knowing what it was like to be kissed by Liesel Meminger. Why do I focus on that detail? Why does it hurt so much to think about? It’s an act of innocence and even that was taken from him. Death’s got the right idea. This is robbery.
He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.
I hadn’t cried at this point. I felt sad, but there weren’t any tears yet. I knew they were died and I’d cried enough the first time around.
Lastly, the Hubermanns.
I didn’t even get to turn the page. (Hans’s name is at the end of the page in my Kindle app with my font size.) Suddenly, that wave of morose sadness washed over me, and it wasn’t hard of me not to remember my life when my father was alive as I read about Hans and Death’s unending affection for him:
His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do–the best ones. The ones who rise up and say, “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places. This one was sent out by the breath of accordion, the odd taste of champagne in summer, and the art of promise-keeping. He lay in my arms and rested. There was an itchy lung for a last cigarette and an immense, magnetic pull toward the basement, for the girl who was his daughter and was writing a book down there that he hoped to read one day.
His soul whispered it as I carried him. But there was no Liesel in that house. Not for me, anyway.
UNENDING WAVE OF TEARS. Oh, Hans, you were such a driving force for all of this, and your compassion and brilliant heart will not be forgotten.
Goodbye, Hans. I’ll miss you.
Rosa. Rosa Hubermann.
Make no mistake, this woman had a heart. She had a bigger one than people would think. There was a lot in it, stored up, high in miles of hidden shelving. Remember that she was the woman with the instrument strapped to her body in the long, moon-slit night. She was a Jew feeder without a question in the world on a man’s first night in Molching. And she was an arm reacher, deep into a mattress, to deliver a sketchbook to a teenage girl.
It took me a few chapters to warm up to Rosa Hubermann, but that angry woman turned into someone I grew to respect and admire. She was the stability in 33 Himmel Street. You could depend on her, both if you needed her or if you were looking for a routine. She was the stone foundation that held up that basement for all those months.
Goodbye, Rosa Hubermann. I’ll miss you, too.
Himmel Street is destroyed and I can’t imagine a more tragically fitting end to all of this: at the end of The Book Thief, we leave this world by destroying it. What else can we do at the end of the world?
Death travels through his narrative of that early morning apocalypse for Liesel by skipping to the moments post-discovery, after the LSE learned that she miraculously survived. In the panic and confusion, Liesel can’t understand that the “snow” she is seeing is ash, that the sky is red from the fires of rib-cage bombs. She is in such a state of shock that one of the LSE men have to actually tell her she’s been bombed.
The girl’s mouth wandered on, even if her body was now still. She had forgotten her previous wails for Hans Hubermann. That was years ago–a bombing will do that. She said, “We have to get my papa, my mama. We have to get Max out of the basement. If he’s not there, he’s in the hallway, looking out the window. He does that sometimes when there’s a raid–he doesn’t get to look much at the sky, you see. I have to tell him how the weather looks now. He’ll never believe me …”
There are many painful, brutal moments in the eighty-forth chapter of The Book Thief. This is the worst one. This is the one that means that Liesel has to go through heartbreak and we will have to witness it. This means that she still has hope and we will have to watch that hope be extinguished.
This is the hardest part.
Liesel is still clutching that little black book that Frau Hermann had given her. The book that literally saved her life. As Liesel processes the words that the LSE man has handed to her in a neat package, a dirty one, but one she can understand, she notices that someone walking by with her father’s broken accordion cases, so she asks if she can take it. In her mind, she must return this to her father so that he knows it’s still at least partially ok.
It was right about then that she saw the first body.
The accordion case fell from her grip. The sound of an explosion.
Frau Holtzapfel was scissored on the ground.
The end of the world has arrived.
While she saw the rest of them, Liesel coughed. She listened momentarily as a man told the others that they had found one of the bodies in pieces, in one of the maple trees.
There were shocked pajamas and torn faces. It was the boy’s hair she saw first.
Even typing this now, I’m crying a bit. It’s just so hard to experience, and it’s even worse to know that it’s all over for Liesel. She’s going to know, and very soon, that she has lost everyone. In a way, it doesn’t feel like a blessing that she survived the blasts. It feels like a curse.
She begs Rudy to wake up. I’m not going to quote that section. I can’t. It’s just too much for me. It’s too much grief and it’s too heavy on my heart. Liesel finally accepts the reality that Rudy is really gone, and she takes that chance to give him what he wants.
She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Liesel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. He tasted dusty and sweet. He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchists’s suit collection. She kissed him long and soft, and when she pulled herself away, she touched his mouth with her fingers. Her hands were trembling, her lips were fleshy, and she leaned in once more, this time losing control and misjudging it. Their teeth collided on the demolished world of Himmel Street.
It’s the kiss Rudy has always wanted and the kiss he’ll never get. God damn, this book.
There’s no goodbye to Rudy. I imagine that this was all Liesel could do for Rudy, and she moves on, impossibly so, to find the bodies of Hans and Rosa Hubermann.
Perhaps if she stood long enough, it would be they who moved, but they remained motionless for as long as Liesel did. I realized at that moment that she was not wearing any shoes. What an odd thing to notice right then. Perhaps I was trying to avoid her face, for the book thief was truly an irretrievable mess.
I don’t even know what I would do or how I would react to such a horror. Liesel sits with her dead parents and says goodbye to them, in her own way, one at a time. She turns to Rosa first and remembers those moments with her, from arriving at 33 Himmel Street and clinging to the gate, and understanding now that Rosa was defending her against everyone else on the street.
HOLD IT TOGETHER, MARK.
When she turns to Hans Hubermann, there’s a particular part that’s especially gutting to me:
Papa was a man with silver eyes, not dead ones.
Papa was an accordion!
But his bellows were all empty.
Nothing went in and nothing came out.
Oh, god, Liesel, I just can’t even deal with this. Fuck.
Those moments she spends with Hans are the most striking for Death, who admits to staring at her face, knowing she loved Hans the most. He knows that in a way, Hans kept her alive all these years, that he was maybe even dead in her place. He watches her ask an LSE to bring her Hans’s accordion, and then he watches her lay it aside him.
And I can promise you something, because it was a thing I saw many years later–a vision in the book thief herself–that as she knelt next to Hans Hubermann, she watched him stand and play the accordion. He stood and strapped it on in the alps of broken houses and played the accordion with kindness, silver eyes, and even a cigarette slouched on his lips. He even made a mistake and laughed in lovely hindsight. The bellows breathed and the tall man played for Liesel Meminger one last time as the sky was slowly taken from the stove.
And now, we watch the hope extinguised:
He dropped the accordion and his silver eyes continued to rust. There was only a body now, on the ground, and Liesel lifted him up and hugged him. She wept over the shoulder of Hans Hubermann.
It’s heartrending and it tears me apart. The world has ended.
Goodbye, Papa, you saved me. You taught me to read. No one can play like you. I’ll never drink champagne. No one can play like you.
Her arms held him. She kissed his shoulder–she couldn’t near to look at his face anymore–and she placed him down again.
The book thief wept till she was gently taken away.
I don’t know where this could go from here. There’s still an epilogue left, but this book will always leave that vacancy in my heart. But we do know that this all comes full circle for Death, who manages to learn that The Book Thief was left behind by Liesel Meminger and, fulfilling those words in the beginning of the book, he picks it up from a garbage truck.
And here we are. At the end of the world.