On Zusak, Gadhafi and Surprise

An unexpected ludicrous moment, a twist into tragedy, a flash of tenderness:  surprise by a character is a crucial element of a riveting story.  Speaking yesterday at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, Marcus  Zusak discussed this as well as describing how he wrote multiple drafts of The Book Thief, trying out different narrators as he worked to understand what the book was really about.  It wasn’t until he knew that his novel had to speak of beauty existing in the worst of circumstances that he went back to using Death as a narrator.  But not a conventionally-personified, insensate Death; instead, his Death persona is haunted by human cruelty, sickened by having to “clean up” after us,  and looks for something beautiful in the tangle of suffering and pain we create.  This point of view is one of the surprises of the novel.

Marcus’ talk was a surprise in itself.  Spotlit in a large, darkened theatre, he spoke fluidly without notes.  A young, married father from Sydney, Australia, slender in jeans and a gray crewneck sweater, he was humble, funny, articulate, and refreshing.  Generous and personal in his response to questions, he opened himself to his audience the way the writer’s soul is opened to the reader in books that endure.

I came home from the talk and watched the evening news, saved on the DVR.  My chocolate Lab fought me for the couch and, as usual, ended up with two thirds of it.  I can only stretch out by draping my legs over her.  Why she thinks this is fair I have no idea.  Anyway, The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany.   Atrocities so horrific they can only be imagined in the telling of one story at a time.  Last night–as so many nights–the news was about one of our contemporary wars.  Pick a war, any war.  We have plenty.  The program I watched detailed yesterday’s violent capture and death of Muammar Gadhafi.   Tracked to a drainage pipe, he’d first been deliberately wounded as he begged not to be shot.  Bloodied, dying, he was dragged out, beaten, and propped against the hood of a car for pictures.  Then the rebels’ passion or rage was too great for restraint:  he was executed.  Exultant, they crowded around to have their pictures taken with the body.  Young men jubilantly fired automatic weapons in the air as others struck the corpse with shoes.  Each one a human being, each one with his bullet or his shoe, each one a story.  One more mutilated body.

These rebels had deposed a dictator because he abused and tortured people and ignored the rule of law.  The world, including America, has been behind the revolution.  In the end, Gadhafi could have been captured and put on trial.  Instead, I can’t distinguish the rebels’ behavior from Gadhafi’s.

Now I’m thinking about surprise in storytelling, about how a writer uses it like a sudden jag in the straight path to where a reader thinks a story is going, may even want it to go.   At the same time, I’m revisiting Zusak’s  offbeat, undeniable character, Death, who’s appalled by human behavior.  Given the ideals of the Libyan revolution and given human history, I’m trying to decide if I believe the rebels’ actions were or were not a surprise.  How should the novel be written?

Your ideas, please.



4 Responses to On Zusak, Gadhafi and Surprise

  1. I too was sickened by the torture and killing of Gadhafi..and the animals from Zanesville. We, like the author, can relate from the “other side”. Will people, men in particular, ever cease to be warring? The bible relates that when Christ was being tortured he asked for forgiveness for his torturers…as they know not what they do. I do know I could not have added to an other’s torment no matter who despicable the individual.

  2. Though Gadhafi will go down in history as one of the most horrific of dictators, the films documenting his torture and death were equally horrific. The rebels actions were not a surprise to me but a reminder that violence has become widely acceptable behavior in this world ,though most societies have legal systems to try, imprison, and even execute such tyrants upon capture. Like Death, I’m appalled by human behavior.

  3. The Libyan rebels didn’t surprise me, the will to revenge being such a primal human urge. That said, I didn’t see the video of Gadhafi’s death. I heard about it on NPR–not quite the same in terms of visceral response.

    Your description of Zusak makes me determined to pick up The Book Thief from the stack beside my bed.

  4. In Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, Death leaves us with one final thought when, in the end, he says, “I am haunted by humans.” I think that this blog reminds us that we are all often haunted by humans too, by our violence, our anger, our thirst for revenge. But, this blog also lays down a challenge for each of us: to continue to search for something beautiful amongst the wreckage. I suppose I could say that I too am haunted by humans, but I am just as frequently surprised by small gestures of kindness, by the instinct to help another, by the generosity of those who truly offer their time, their patience and their attention to others as the two experiences you describe in your blog attest.

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