It’s 5.30 pm on a Sunday, and the Mumbai sun shows no sign of relenting. There can be no winter in this city, not when the weather is so stubborn, at least until the evening spreads out against the sky in shades of salmon and gold. It’s not entirely unlike the Sydney of Markus Zusak’s latest novel, Bridge of Clay, where “Aspirin-white” heat beats down the streets, the running tracks, the cemetery, and that strange house at the end of Archer Street the five Dunbar boys call home. His hometown acts as a ribcage, containing the heart and lungs of the 100-chapter, nearly 600-page-long novel that was 13 years in the making. “For me, Sydney felt like a succession of sporting fields, fights with my brother, boxing matches with his friends. But the heat there hits you like a sledgehammer,” he says.
Sitting in the cool confines of an Italian restaurant in Cuffe Parade, Zusak, 43, is gearing up for a whirlwind India tour — speaking engagements in Chennai and Mumbai, sessions at the Kolkata Literary Meet and the on-going Jaipur Literature Festival — as part of the six-month-long Australia Fest that began in September 2018 and wraps up in March. He’s also prepared to listen to comments about how his sixth novel is nothing like the previous one. The Book Thief was translated into 40 languages, adapted into a much-loved film in 2013, and its royalties allowed him to write Bridge of Clay without struggling to make ends meet — a far cry from the 13 years prior, when Zusak worked as a substitute high school teacher, and a cleaner at a doctor’s surgery. “I know the writing in this book is better than The Book Thief, as it should be. It took me so long because I started and stopped so many times; I had a different narrator, and then I took her out. With each edit, the story changed as well. So I’m less embarrassed by it, because every single word was chosen for a reason, it’s deliberate and considered,” says Zusak, with a kind of boyish sincerity one does not easily associate with a literary phenomenon.
There is nothing coy about the way Bridge of Clay opens: “In the beginning, there was one murderer, one mule and one boy, but this isn’t the beginning…” What unfolds is a sprawling saga about five sons — Matthew the narrator, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy — who lost their mother, Penelope, to cancer three years before the present day, and their father, whom they call the Murderer, who abandoned them. When he returns to the family home, it is with a proposal: would the boys help him build a bridge near the river in the outback where he now lives? The boys’ prolonged grief and suffering from his desertion still burns bright, and they turn their backs on him, except for one: Clay, the most obviously wounded of them all, the boy who pushed his body to train for a task he never knew would come, and the son who must become the link between the past and present for the Dunbar family.
With its title and metaphors, there was always a danger that the novel would be too on the nose, but to read Zusak is to trust him to know that all the major elements that make up our lives — love, pain, belonging, death, and hope — is the sum of all the parts that came before us. “In hindsight, I feel that there’s a river that’s running underneath that house, and that is the rhythm of that family, coming in and going out all the time,” says Zusak, the youngest of four children born to an Austrian father and a German mother who immigrated to Australia from Europe in the 1950s.
He explored dislocation, alienation, grappling with identity and the sense of the self, in The Book Thief, where Death narrates the story of Liesel Meminger, an orphan growing up in Germany during the Third Reich, who is taught how to read by a Jewish fist-fighter her foster family is sheltering in their home. Words become her only source of hope and she steals books that are meant to be destroyed by the Nazi party. In Bridge of Clay, Zusak uses books again, especially Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, to outline the immigrant experience.
“I think books are part of the arsenal that immigrants use to defend against that feeling of powerlessness. I wrote about the Dunbar boys on an epic scale, because even though their lives are ordinary, they have these big moments, where they are heroes, flawed and fallible. They’ve grown up on the stories of their mother Penelope’s love for the Greek epics, the only books she could bring to the new country; just as I’ve been raised listening to stories about my parent’s experiences. The Book Thief happened because I wanted to write a true story about my mum’s childhood in Munich,” says Zusak. In contrast, Bridge of Clay is almost singularly his book: he first thought of the story when he was 20 years old, drew from his childhood in Sydney to map out the suburban experience, and, in a first, completely identifies with his main protagonist. “Like Clay, I’ve never been good at anything, but I’ve been training all my life. He is building and moulding that bridge out of himself, and this book is made of me; it’s everything in me but it’s not about me. It’s the love and life and death I’d imagine for myself if I were a fictional character,” says Zusak.
Since its release last October, Bridge of Clay has divided Zusak’s readership: several fans of The Book Thief are unable to reconcile with the weight of his sometimes unruly, often dense and dramatic, but always visceral prose, while others have embraced the “muchness” of his non-linear narrative. “The 100 chapters are by design, they form two arches of the book. I wanted to slow things down, so that people actually read it carefully,” says Zusak, whose books the world over fall under the general fiction category, but who is marketed and sold as a Young Adult author in the US. There, The Book Thief has been voted as a classic, on the same lines as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by JD Salinger.
“That categorisation worked for that novel, because it got a lot of young people to read a book that was grim. I write about young people because I’m drawn to them, and I think as characters and readers, we underestimate them at our own peril,” says Zusak, adding, “Whenever I meet somebody who says that they’re writing ‘just a Young Adult’ novel, I tell them to remove the word ‘just’. I’ll go a step further in the future and ask them to call it a novel. Could you imagine Salinger saying, ‘Oh, it’s just a Young Adult novel?’”
In the past couple of months, Zusak has been contemplating a companion book to his latest offering: he’s likely to bring back Maggie, the Dunbar’s neighbour and the first narrator of their story till he handed the reins of the novel to Matthew. “There’ll only be this other book, because I’m tying it up with the way Homer wrote the epics: the Iliad is the way out and the Odyssey is the journey home; this will be somewhat similar to that. I’m not worried about taking my time. I don’t want to put a book out that meant something to me — I want to put a book out that means everything to me.”