The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne)
(David Fickling Books, 2006)
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a multiple-award-winning novel and has also been made into a film. Even without these credentials, a story of friendship in a time of terrible hate should make a powerful statement. It does make for a disturbing read—as it should—but what is surprising is that it is supremely unimpressive. Calling itself a “historical fable” takes the millstone of historical accuracy off its neck, which is not to say that it lets the book off the hook in terms of responsibility. Writing about the Holocaust, and especially when writing about it for children, is a tricky task to take on, and this one makes the cardinal sin of going down the path of being simplistic.
Bruno is heartbroken when he has to move with his family from their lovely home in Berlin, leaving his school and his friends behind. He is rather perplexed when his new home is in the middle of nowhere—in fact, in Auschwitz, a name that he cannot pronounce (though we’re not exactly sure why). But Father is a terribly important man in the Fury’s army (the Führer being another word Bruno refuses to say correctly despite being a German native). Bruno accepts his fate with bad grace, but since he’s only nine, it’s not as though he has much choice about it. While he’s curious about the forbidding wire fence and the all the people he can see in the distance from his bedroom window, he is too caught up in his own life to think much about it. Something about the place makes him uneasy and he cannot understand why when the soldiers sometimes point guns at the people with striped pyjamas, they don’t get up again and have to be dragged away. Then, one day, he makes friends with a boy from the other side.
Shmuel is nine like Bruno, but he is small and weak, hungry and bedraggled. The boys sit across the fence and talk about their lives. Bruno moans about how he misses his big house with its five floors in Berlin and his friends, while Shmuel talks about how he’s been separated from his mother, how the soldiers mistreat them, and how friends and relatives are often taken on marches from which they never return. But what Bruno really wants is to play with Shmuel, to be on the same side of the fence. One day, they make a plan to do exactly that. Shmuel gets Bruno a set of the striped pyjamas he’s always wearing and they find a place in the fence where Bruno can squeeze under. The same day when it’s Shmuel’s turn to go on the march and Bruno is right next to him, holding his hand…
As an adult reader, it was immediately obvious from the cutesy allusions to the Fury and Out-With that the setting is Nazi Germany and Bruno’s father is a high-ranking SS officer who was being sent to supervise the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Obviously, it is also clear that Shmuel and the others were Jewish prisoners who were being sent to the gas chambers. However, a reader of about nine or ten (which, going by the language of the book, is the intended audience) is unlikely to pick up the context. It isn’t clear why John Boyne is pussyfooting around this particular historical period. The Holocaust was a major event and this would have been a fanstastic opportunity to talk about it to children. But without the background, without facts, the story falls flat because there is no explanation of either the setting, the plot or the consequences. Of the “importance” of Father’s job, why the maid Marta is scared, why Pavel who used to be a doctor is now working as a cook, why Shmuel often has bruises on his face and body, why Shmuel’s papa has disappeared, and indeed, what happens when Bruno accompanies Shmuel on the march and into the long, dark room, and the implications of what happens to Father after Bruno disappears.
The veteran Indian children’s author Paro Anand, who has written extensively on children in conflict situations, never stops reminding us that she has one rule that she lives by: no matter how dark and dire the setting of her books are, she makes it a point to end with hope. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is the other end of the spectrum—it ends in a black hole. A young boy being collateral damage in one of the worst genocides in human history is a bleak story; heck, the Holocaust itself is a bleak story, but one wishes that the author had found a way to end differently. One is reminded of Sally Gardner’s brilliant Maggot Moon, which is set in a time and place similar to Nazi Germany but completely reimagined, where the narrator of the story, a teenage boy, dies and yet the story is touching and poignant. Carolyn Marsden’s The White Zone about two boys in strife-torn Iraq even finds a way of ending with hope.
The narrator Bruno doesn’t help by being singularly immature, self-absorbed and—though it might not be politic to say this about a child—stupid. It is hard to consider him a nine-year-old; he talks and behaves much more like a five- or six-year-old, and his sister, apparently twelve, is more the nine-year-old. Both of them live in some sort of bubble because they are completely ignorant about the supremacist ideology propagated by the Nazis. This is hard to digest given that their father appears to be one of Hitler’s top men. Bruno should have joined the Deutsches Jungvolk (German Youth, an organization that indoctrinated boys aged 10 to 14 in Nazi ways of thinking) in the course of this story—but suppose we excuse that since it’s just a fable—it is still inconceivable that he (and his sister) would not have been coached in such matters at home, at school and by people around them. Bruno was born in 1934, for heaven’s sake, slap bang in the middle of rampant anti-Semitism and he never heard of the word “Jew”? Not buying it! Even if Bruno and Gretel weren’t aware of the gorier details, at least an understanding of Jews and their “lesser status” would be a given. Bruno, in fact, thinks Heil Hitler is a way or saying goodbye or “have a pleasant afternon”, and only knows of the Nazi swastika as a symbol his father wears on his armband. Considering that Hitler comes to dinner one evening, it is hard to believe that his father would not have made sure that his children were up to speed on matters of ideology.
The narrative is completely from Bruno’s perspective, but is too childish for the most part to be a believable nine-/ten-year-old. It doesn’t help that his voice falters a couple of times. The author also employs a technique of repeating (and capitalizing) certain words and phrases, which comes across as rather inane. For example, he calls his sister “the Hopeless Case” and it becomes trying after the dozenth or so time it’s used—not to mention rather unconvincing. Father’s study being “Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions” and people making faces “in the shape of an O” every thing they are surprised are other examples. A particularly annoying one is “the dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy”, even though used only a couple of times. Bruno’s inability to say Führer and Auschwitiz isn’t particularly credible, especially as we’re given to believe that he speaks only German. Even though it is exasperating, one might be able to gloss over it as an authorial decision. Had the real names been used though, it might have helped young readers gain a context.
But Bruno’s naiveté is harder to digest. Why does he not stick up for his friend when he can see he is been beaten and threatened? How does he persist in believing that the people on the other side of the fence have “normal” lives when he can see that isn’t the case? He seems to have no empathy for Shmuel and stubbornly refuses to see the bleak condition he lives in. This is hard to believe in a child his age.
A suspension of disbelief is also required to imagine that, even if a child like Shmuel would have survived a year in Auschwitz, would he have had the opportunity to steal away for hours every day? Would there have been a part of the fence that remained unguarded day in and day out (in fact, the fences of the concentration camps were electrified and Shmuel and Bruno should have been fried if they had tried to mess with it).
In the final scheme of things, however, this is fiction and an author has the right to make things up. But when wading into the tricky waters of historical fiction, there is also a matter of responsibility to history. Whether or not one turns it into a “fable”.