Friday, May 6, 2011
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
David Fickling Books, a division of Random House Children's Books
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas doesn’t explicitly reveal any wartime atrocities. There’re no descriptions of the horrors dished out to Jews, the rapes of women or the killing of innocent civilians. It’s what author John Boyne leaves to the imagination that makes this one of the most disturbing fictional accounts of World War Two that I’ve read.
It’s a story full of dramatic irony; nine year-old Bruno has no idea his family lives beside one of Europe’s most infamous concentration camps, nor does he comprehend any of the realities of his new friend Shmuel’s life. This level of obtuseness displayed by Bruno and his sister towards their surroundings is frustrating, especially as the narrative develops. I had to constantly remind myself that the two children are shielded from Nazi propaganda (slightly inconceivable given their father’s position in the party and the prominence of Hitler Youth.)
Bruno (the story’s narrator) is miserable about being dragged away from his home in Berlin to live at “Out-With,” where his father is a Commandant in Hitler’s abhorrent regime. But after realising the futility of resistance he decides to explore the unfamiliar area. When he and 12 year old Gretel look out his bedroom window at a camp stretching as far as the eye can see, fenced with barbed wire and housing hundreds of people dressed in “striped pyjamas” he becomes determined to find out what it is. Boyne’s attempt to make sense of such a scene through the eyes of a child is almost plausible, but unfortunately the writing is too cutesy to be wholly convincing.
And that is where the book founders, because its themes are brilliant and thought provoking (and would be even more so if Boyne had nailed the style). Bruno constantly refers to the “Fuhror” (who comes to dinner while the family still lives in Berlin) as the “Fury.” This is a ridiculous association for the author to impose on his German speaking main character. The book may be written in English, but in German “Fuhror” sounds nothing like “fury”(“wut”). Similarly Bruno refers to Auschwitz as “Out With” which, at a stretch, sounds slightly similar in English but in German it doesn’t stack up. These obvious discrepancies have a serious impact on the novel’s integrity and they’re a blunder on the editor’s part.
Luckily though, the writing style doesn’t detract from the story’s key messages, which are subtly delivered but nevertheless resonate like a sledgehammer to the heart. Like Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is uncomfortable and disconcerting because it compels us to place our sympathies firmly at the feet of Nazi protagonists who actively participate in the mass murders of thousands of Jews. Schlink forces us to see the humanity of Hanna Schmitz, a former guard at an Auschwitz satellite who is found guilty of the deaths by fire of 300 Jewish women by refusing to unlock a bombed church following the camp’s evacuation. Of course Bruno can’t be compared to Schmitz, but as the book draws to its inevitable conclusion, there’s an overwhelming sense of guilt on the reader’s part because one can’t help but empathise just a little with Bruno’s anguished father, even in the knowledge that he has so hatefully sent countless innocent people to their deaths.
Boyne skilfully displays his real strength here, which is his ability to invoke, almost simultaneously, the full emotional spectrum. Nowhere does his lesson punch so hard as when Bruno puts on his own “striped pyjamas” (borrowed from Shmuel):
“Shmuel blinked and shook his head. It was quite extraordinary. If it wasn’t for the fact that Bruno was nowhere near as skinny as the boys on his side of the fence, and not quite so pale either, it would have been difficult to tell them apart.”
The friendship of two boys, both born on the same day, one a Jew and one the son of a Nazi, is one of the most forceful condemnations of Nazi evil I’ve encountered. In Shmuel’s words: “It was almost…as if they were all exactly the same really.”
Although The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is classified as a children’s book, it’s certainly gripping enough for adults too. Of course that is probably why I struggled with the tone so much, so watch the film too - it’s even more compelling (make sure you’ve got tissues though).