Trauma Narratives in the Basement: A Psychoanalytic Reading of The Book Thief

December 16, 2014

Zusack, M 2005, The Book Thief, Sydney, Picador.

By Susan Karpasitis

Book cover

Idly browsing the racks of the local second hand book store, I was more than a little disconcerted by a copy of Marcus Zusack’s The Book Thief (2005) buried in the depths of the $5 basket, dumped unceremoniously beneath a battered copy of Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Whilst there isn’t time here for a sufficient defence of the qualities of the aforementioned mock- Gothic masterpiece, I would like to take a moment to offer some compelling reasons as to why The Book Thief (celebrating its ten year anniversary in 2015), remains a hugely important narrative in contemporary literature.

An over-zealous literary trauma theorist could be forgiven for suggesting that The Book Thief was purposely written to illustrate some of the most important concepts in contemporary trauma theory. In fact when read from a traumatalogical perspective, it is hard to reconcile the seemingly luke-warm critical acclaim for this novel with its deserved placement as trauma novel of the naughties.

To begin with a very basic overview of literary trauma: based on the psychoanalytic ideas of Sigmund Freud, and later Jacques Lacan and Cathy Caruth, trauma theory purports that when traumatic events occur, the brain in a protective gesture, blocks them from fully entering consciousness. They are repressed and buried in the depth of the psyche, for the large part inaccessible to the conscious individual in normal everyday life. However, these traumatic stimuli refuse to remain buried and often assert themselves as intrusive images and waking nightmares; as symptoms of trauma-related illnesses such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), or through unconscious acts of repetition. The Book Thief cleverly illustrates many of these traumatic tropes, including fragmented narrative structures, intrusive imagery and the subjective perspective of ‘death’ as a character. The two aspects of conveying trauma that I would like to focus on in this article are the use of narrative as a therapeutic tool and the setting of the basement in Himmel Street.


“She was a girl, in Nazi Germany. How fitting that she was discovering the power of words” (p.154).

From the outset, Zusack establishes a link between trauma and the use of narrative as a coping mechanism. Let’s start with Liesel’s first real trauma – the death of her brother and the abandonment by her mother. At her brother’s funeral, Liesel steals her first book, The Gravediggers Handbook. We are immediately told by Zusack that “the point is it didn’t really matter what the book was about. It was what it meant that was more important” (p.45). This is certainly true. Liesel in fact does not have the ability to read by herself at this stage in the novel, therefore she is compelled to steal the book for two reasons. Firstly, she needs a ‘thing’, an object to fill the metaphysical gap left by the loss of her brother; secondly, she is subconsciously reaching out for the tool that will help her to cope with this and future traumas – this tool is narrative. Hans (Papa) subsequently develops the link between trauma and narrative as a coping mechanism. Liesel has a recurring traumatic dream that features the image of her dead brother staring at her on the train. These dreams gradually become mixed with other traumatic images –her mother’s face, Nazi ‘brown shirts’ and other fragmented symbols of her contemporary trauma.

As a result of these traumas we are told early on that Liesel wets the bed – a common reaction to traumatic images The important thing here is that after the trauma (the events), the inability to process trauma (the dreams) and the anxiety following this inability to process (the bedwetting), Hans offers Liesel the tools to cope with trauma – reading and later writing. He finds The Gravediggers Handbook while removing her sodden sheets and both of them are drawn to it as the natural next step. “There was a sudden desire to read it that she didn’t even attempt to understand” (p74). She can’t understand it because it is a subconscious reaction to trauma. Of course Liesel is able to then pass on this coping mechanism to Max later in the book.

Photographed by Kate Ter Haar

Photographed by Kate Ter Haar

Reading becomes associated with a decrease in anxiety for Liesel. It calms her down. When Hans reads to her, it soothes her back to sleep. Later, when Liesel reads to others in the bomb shelter, it calms her and all those around her. They become fixated on the words and the story. Reading aloud to her bereaved neighbour, Mrs Holtzapfel, also proves to be therapeutic. Even in her darkest moments when she is dealing with the suicide of her son, Mrs Holtzapfel calls for Liesel: “the words go unheard but the sound is comforting” (p.477).

Narratives – books and stories – are also hugely important to Max. Mein Kampf, which roughly translates to ‘My struggle’ – by Adolf Hitler (1926) effectually saves Max’s life. As Max is forced to hastily disguise himself whilst escaping from persecution, he uses a copy of Mein Kampf to cover and disguise his face. Zusack is quick to point out that he temporarily eradicates his identity as a Jewish man by clinging to the very text that seeks to eradicate his identity as a Jewish man. Therefore when Liesel meets Max for the first time, we are not surprised to see him holding a copy of Mein Kampf. Reading it by the fire he simply states: “It’s the best book ever…it saved my life” (p.224).

As Max begins to process his trauma, and acknowledge new traumas, he systematically whitewashes Mein Kampf. He uses the only material available to him – the pages of the book – to write his own history; to document his own struggle. It is not lost on the reader that Max paints over Hitler’s struggle with his own. However, what is more interesting is the way in which this whitewashing takes place: “they were the erased pages of Mein Kampf, gagging, suffocating under the paint as they turned” (p.246). Aside from the troubling imagery, eerily evocative of suffocating gas – a deliberately controversial move by Zusack – it is interesting to note that unlike other key books in The Book Thief, Mein Kampf is not completely destroyed (through burning) but instead continues on and becomes an aid in traumatic recovery precisely because its original ideas are supplanted by Max’s messages of hope. In a form of therapeutic layering, the letters from underneath seep into the new text. The words from Mein Kampf can still be seen, therefore the text is transformed into a co-mingling of trauma narratives. It is not a process of writing over, but rather a layering of words, a layering of trauma, which reflects the complexities of traumatic narrative and the ways in which the global, political and acutely personal are inevitably intertwined on a variety of levels.

The Basement

“She kept her mouth shut everywhere she went. The secret was buried deep” (p.220).

Liesel learns to read, and so learns to deal with trauma, in the basement. This is hugely symbolic as in Freudian psychoanalysis the basement represents unconscious drives, repressed fears, traumas and fantasies. All of these elements do in fact play out in the basement.

Liesel often psychoanalytically seeks out the comfort of the womb – she tries to make herself small and sheltered, like an infant, when faced with trauma. After she has written numerous letters to her mother and received no response, Liesel gradually realises that her mother has deserted her and that it is very unlikely that she will see her again. In response to this pivotal realisation, she crawls and hides underneath the table. When she remembers her mother, Zusack writes “Liesel revisited those dark rooms of her past” (p.117). From the kitchen table the progressive development of the sheltered space comes in the form of the basement. Unlike the kitchen table, this new space does in fact provide Liesel, Max and to some extent Hans with a degree of safety, security, privacy and space for interiority. In fact, for Max the basement both literally and figuratively saves his life. “The basement was the only place for him” (p.209).

For Max the basement could easily be just another imprisoning room. When we first meet him, he is being held in a secret storage room. He is on edge, constantly waiting to be discovered. At times of course this is also true of the basement, most readers will remember the nauseating nail biting chapter where the Nazis search Max’s basement without realising he is there. Zusack informs us “the taste of heart was not too cheerful” (p.351).

However, just like Liesel, Max finds his coping mechanism for trauma in the basement. He allows his unconscious fantasies to play out both through writing his story ‘The Word Shaker’ and through his fantasy of boxing Hitler. Much more than an idle daydream, fighting Hitler for Max becomes an act of imaginary re-empowerment. He starts off by being beaten down feeling “as if he were dissolving” (p.260), while “one by one they climbed into the ring and beat him down. They made him bleed. They let him suffer” (p.261). As he ‘faces’ Hitler, cutting a ridiculous figure in his boxing shorts and oversized moustache, Max is eventually able to stand up to and eventually fight back against him. As we are informed that Max used to be a champion boxer, by fighting back against Hitler through a sport he loves, he is fighting back against his powerlessness as a Jewish man in Nazi Germany. Interestingly, Max has transferred his anger from Death “when death captures me he will feel my fist on his face” (p.197) to Hitler. The basement then, is not just a room for reading, but a space where Liesel, Hans and Max proactively rebel against the constraints of Nazi Germany.

The basement is also a place for the layering of trauma. Just as we have seen with books, the walls of the basement are painted and repainted with words. This transforms them from being a static picture or work of art, to a diary or journal of recovery from trauma. As Max begins to deal with his trauma through coping mechanisms like reading and writing, he becomes increasingly eager to break free of the basement. “In his loneliest moments in the basement, the words started piling up around him” (p.287). We see him asking about weather outside and even stealing a glimpse of the stars through the curtain. On a practical level, this is because he has been in hiding for 22 months. But if we take the word ‘hiding’ and if we read the basement in psychoanalytic terms as a representation of Max’s unconscious – of repressions, trauma and hidden fears – then we can say that Max leaves the basement because he feels psychologically strong enough to leave. He has visualised himself defeating Hitler; he has expressed his trauma through narrative and he has no more need or want of this hidden sanctuary.

After Max leaves, Liesel decides to write her own story from the basement. This is inevitable as she feels that the basement, the place of secrets, the place of Max, is the only space where she can be psychologically comfortable with her various traumas (including witnessing the death of her brother). The writing of her story in the basement is also significant in terms of plot – it saves her life. From a practical perspective, she is in the basement writing her story when the bomb drops on Himmel Street and is thereby saved from death. From a psychoanalytic perspective – her ability to put finally her trauma into words (the Freudian talking cure) saves her life. Ironically, it is the basement, the hidden unconscious room of secrets and trauma, that is the only setting to remain standing after the rest of Himmel Street is destroyed.

This article, to use an idiom associated with depth and buried truths, has only ‘skimmed the surface’ of the numerous and brilliantly self-consciously overt ways in which Zusack conveys, processes and acknowledges complex trauma and its interdependency on individuals and global phenomena. The many seemingly disparate events and elements of the text combine to produce the therapeutic culminations of trauma: the narratives of Liesel and Max. Narrative technique, discovered in the basement and shared through the reading and re-writing of words, saves their lives and equips them with the coping mechanisms for future traumas. Zusack summarises this important function of narrative as Liesel speaks to the body of her dead father:
“Goodbye Papa – you saved my life – you taught me to read” (p. 542).

Susan karpasitis is an English lecturer. Her interests include representations of madness in literature, her PhD thesis focused on representations of psychological trauma in Renaissance literature.


One Response to “Trauma Narratives in the Basement: A Psychoanalytic Reading of The Book Thief”

  1. […] of the intersection between texts and representations of ‘madness’, Susan Karpasitis, inTrauma Narratives in the Basement: A Psychoanalytic Reading of The Book Thief, considers the relationship between psychological trauma narrative through a revisiting of the best […]

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