Updated on August 5, 2015
11. ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne
[WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS]
Like ‘Beloved’, this book confronts one of those overwhelmingly large subjects that, I believe, requires writing of extreme skill and subtlety. This time, the focus is on concentration camps during World War Two.
The story is told from the point of view of Bruno, a young boy who moves from Berlin to a place he calls ‘Out-With’ (ie. Auschwitz. Other mispronunciations like this are quite obvious and, I’m sure, are meant to emphasise Bruno’s innocence, although I found them a bit laboured). Looking out of his bedroom window he has a perfect view into the concentration camp next door, which he watches from a distance and does not understand. When he takes a walk along the perimeter fence, he meets a Jewish boy the same age as him (they share the same birthday, however unlikely that seems), and they meet daily at the fence to talk. The plot seems rather too far-fetched – Bruno’s parents let him have a bedroom with a view of a concentration camp? Nobody notices Bruno or Shmeul (especially Shmeul) sneaking off to meet each other, for a whole year? Really?
Bruno’s father is the Commandant of Auschwitz, and this is one of my main gripes with the book. The presentation of ‘evil’ in literature has a long and varied history, and one thing that appears time and again in writing about autocratic regimes is the notion that people cannot simply be labelled as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. How did soldiers murder countless Jews during the day, and tuck their children in at night? Were they inherently evil? No, of course not. In this story Bruno’s father loves his son, is proud of him and wants to do well by him, but he is ultimately distant, disciplined and prone to attacks of anger. This extends to the depiction of Nazi soldiers – when they enter a room, the children physically shiver with cold. It’s not an offensively unbelievable interpretation, but it ultimately ignores the possibility that, perhaps, the reality was a little more complicated than that.
I liked the conversations between Bruno and Shmeul. Bruno is almost deliberately ignorant of the sort of life Shmeul leads in the concentration camp, preferring to talk about himself and ignore his friend’s obvious suffering. Historian Kathryn Hughes wrote: “Bruno’s innocence comes to stand for the wilful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses”.
The relationship between father and son could have been examined more closely. I think it could have been the crux of the entire story – resulting, perhaps, in Bruno finally realising what his father is capable of – but he retains his innocence until the ending, which seems more calculated to tug at the heartstrings than make the reader thoughtfully confront the history.
To give this book the benefit of the doubt, it is not claiming to be provocative literature. It is a sentimental story, written well enough to be entertaining, but not to be taken too seriously. For a novel that deals with the same subject on a much deeper level, I would highly recommend ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink. For a relatively straightforward, tear-jerking story, ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ is fine.
“Heil Hitler,” [Bruno] said, which, he presumed, was another way of saying, “Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.”
I bought this book from a book fair at university, quite cheaply, after seeing the film. When a friend and I went to the cinema to see the film, we arrived five minutes late – the man who sold us the cinema tickets filled us in: “Oh, you haven’t missed much. They’ve just moved to Auschwitz.”
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?