The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
John Boyne wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in two days. I managed to down this slim novel in about an hour and a half. To be fair, children’s literature is fairly easy for me, an adult literary critic-in-training, to breeze through, but I actually had intended to pick at it over a busy weekend. But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was transfixing, something I find rare in media—the last thing I was transfixed by was The Social Network, being innocent to the work of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. But transfixing does not mean flawless.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about a nine-year-old boy, but, as Boyne points out on the back cover of my edition, it’s not exactly for nine-year-olds. Young Bruno’s family is being uprooted from Berlin because of his father’s mysterious work, which upsets Bruno and even the Hopeless Case herself, his older sister Gretel. But their new, isolated home offers one surprise; a strange, fenced-in complex filled with people. Bruno, an explorer at heart, sets off to explore this complex and meets Shmuel, a young boy behind the fence. Over the course of a year, the two boys grow close—but Bruno can’t quite figure out why Shmuel can never leave.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is powerful. While I’m listing it under children’s fiction when it comes the audience, it’s appropriate for all ages—albeit for someone who can understand the subtle irony of the story. The title page proclaims it to be a fable, which it most certainly is. Bruno is almost willfully innocent, to the point that critics of the book argue that he’s impossible; a young German boy in the 1940s who doesn’t know what Jews are, can’t deduce that Out-With (a twee and improbable mispronunciation on Bruno’s part) is, in fact, Auschwitz, and can’t figure out his supposedly close new friend is suffering. Yes, Bruno is unrealistic, but I think his innocence (and the historical inaccuracies) serves the point of this story—Boyne’s fable brutally exposes the evils of complacency, of standing by in utter ignorance when horrific things are going on. And to be fair, Shmuel is equally as innocent as Bruno; when his fellow prisoners are carted away, he worries over their disappearances instead of concluding the worst.
In fact, Boyne doesn’t attribute Bruno’s innocence to his youth. Instead, he attributes it to an ignorance forced on him by adults. Bruno’s family is a family that does not talk about important things—while his father teaches him the Nazi salute, Bruno presumes it’s “another way of saying, ‘Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.’” (54). Bruno is constantly told not to interrupt, not to ask too many questions, and to do simply what he’s told. Bruno is a curious child who wants to be taken seriously; he wants to be an explorer when he grows up and calling him “little man” instead of “young man” earns people his ire. As you might deduce yourself, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a tragedy—I twigged on to the ending about halfway through the book, but knowing it in advance doesn’t ruin the book at all; it simply makes it more shocking and powerful. As well as explicitly focusing on the evils of complacency, Boyne also goes after the evil of keeping children in the dark. Had anyone in the family been willing to take Bruno aside and treat him as his own agent with a right to know what’s going on, the ultimate end of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas could have been avoided.
There are some twee moments—Boyne’s determination to keep the word Auschwitz out of the book leads to Bruno’s mispronunciations of Off-With and Fury—and the plot can be a bit circular; there are a handful of chapters that flashback to a fateful dinner Bruno’s father has with Hitler. One chapter also pulls the trick of having an end sentence refer back to a beginning sentence to tie up loose ends, which I found too pat. The writing is simple and innocent, as Bruno is, and it occasionally oddly dips into the minds of Gretel and Shmuel, who are just as innocent as Bruno is. But there’s a dark irony to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; it’s implied that an Auschwitz prisoner is beaten to death in front of Bruno’s eyes by an enraged soldier over a spilled bottle of wine, that Bruno’s mother is having an affair with said soldier, and, of course, the darkly ironic last lines—“[of] course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again” (216)—which shook me to my very core.
Bottom line: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable-like and darkly ironic treatise on ignorance, innocence, and complacency in the face of true horror. While not perfect, it’s a very powerful piece of work.
I bought this used book off of Amazon.
- Boyne, John. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. New York: David Fickling Books, 2006. Print.