My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Even though this book is about the Holocaust and Auschwitz there is a persistent, deliberate sense of censorship that haunts the narrative and stops us from truly experiencing the horrors of the concentration camp. This will either have one of two effects on the reader: either they will be attracted to this ‘lighter’ way of story-telling, or they will be completely put off by it.
The story is about Bruno, a nine-year old boy living in Berlin with his wealthy family, who comes home one day from school to find they are moving to a place called ‘Out-With’. Bruno is greatly disappointed and mourns the fact that he will no longer be able to play at exploring the nooks and crannies of the grand, mahogany rooms. This tumultuous change in family life is all due to his father’s promotion, which coincided with a personal visit from a short, cold-mannered and rather rude man known as ‘the Fury’.
Bruno resents the visit and the ensuing developments that cause his family to move, and when they do eventually arrive at their new home his disappointment grows into despair. ‘Out-With’ turns out to be a desolate place in the middle of nowhere and no place for a young adventurous boy to grow up. Even his mother objects and is uneasy with their surroundings; which he knows only because he hears his parents arguing about it.
With no friends to play with and no other houses for miles around, Bruno tries to make the best of things; however it doesn’t take long before Bruno’s inquisitive nature gets the better of him and he discovers that there are people living nearby. People living in a high-walled building; people who walk around listlessly wearing nothing but blue striped pyjamas. Bruno’s imagination is ignited and it is not long before he finds a way to reach this place and befriend a boy, just like him, who has had to leave his home behind because of the ‘Fury’.
What ensues is a friendship that destroys ethnic and religious boundaries and which ends in a final, cruel twist of fate.
Boyne warns us that this is ultimately a fable, a cautionary tale and that it is not true; even though the rare moments when we do get a glimpse of the horrors of Auschwitz goes to show that Boyne stays faithful to real accounts of that time.
However, I assume Boyne chose to write the story through the eyes of a nine-year-old in order to cultivate a more innocent, ‘fable-like’ approach. And indeed this not only leaks into the perspective, but also into the language of the characters in the form of ‘Out-With’ and ‘the Fury’. This, and other forms of censorship/ banning of ‘bad’ words are both a blessing and a curse. I initially read this book with a group of Year 8 students, and appreciated the fact that the story was clean and straight-forward to read. It also helped that they had to do a little thinking to figure out who ‘the Fury’ was and what ‘Out-With’ meant. However, I couldn’t help smiling when some more ‘awake’ readers complained that the main character was a little dumb. My twelve-year olds had touched on a very good point.
While Boyne was trying to make a terrible account about WW2 and concentration camps more accessible for younger children; he has also managed to ‘lobotimize’ it too. From experience I (and my year 8’s) know that most 9 year-olds are not as ignorant as the way Bruno is portrayed to be in the novel. They are the exact opposite: inquisitive and highly precocious. Children at that age learn things almost by osmosis and I feel (like my students) that Boyne made a grave mistake when dumbing his main character down like that.
If you are looking for an ideal book for your 11-13 year old that will tie in with their History classes and is a little more conservative, then this is the perfect book. However I would suggest that reading together would be the best, as then issues and questions can be raised about the narrative, who knows, you might be surprised about the intelligent responses you get as I did.
ANALYSIS OF ‘THE BOY IN STRIPED PYJAMAS’
Having had further thoughts on Boyne’s use of a child narrator, I have decided to analyse it as a deliberate device and a way of story-telling. There are passages within the book that I have criticised because I deem the viewpoint too simplistic or naive. However if we were to look at the book from an analytical standpoint, there is much to say about Boyne’s intent and message to the reader. Arguably WW2 was one of the most senseless and incomprehensibly violent wars the world has ever seen. The sense of gross defilement that victims went through is still very hard to process. Psychologically, there will always be a ‘why’ that the survivors of the holocaust have carried and will carry with them till they die. It’s like an empty vacuum that cannot be filled with an answer, because there isn’t one.
The children in the story represent both of these mentalities. Shmuel is a character that says very little, is world-weary and resigned to his fate. The vacuum I spoke about is evident in his description and actions. He understands the suffering, knows the pain, yet cannot (or IS not capable) of questioning it due to his age. The main character however is far more innocent. He has zero concept of the world around him (which is the only thing I don’t like about this book). We could argue that Boyne uses a painfully ignorant boy to highlight the incomprehensibility of the war itself, and that Boyne is channelling this message through the character’s actions.
This could also reflect in the innocent childish lisp that he has. There are certain words that have become imbued with horror that the child cannot pronounce come what may. I forget exactly which words they were, but I think ‘Auschwitz’ was one and possibly ‘Hitler’ was another. I found this to be quite potent, as Boyne is clearly signalling how some words are not fit to grace the lips of children. In some cases, people who suffer some sort of psychological trauma also develop speaking difficulties. We could also argue that the child narrator is foreshadowing the events about to befall him (his tragic end).
The children in the novel are severely repressed. Shmuel for obvious reasons in the camp, but for Bruno it is a repression of communication. There is a silence in the house, a clear ‘children should be seen and not heard’ culture which was prevalent then. Bruno’s communication with his father is sporadic and often curtailed for one reason or another. We can again link this to how the holocaust could not be explained in rational ways, because Bruno’s father is seen to avoid/ dodge the questions of his son. In a cast that is so heavily made up with male characters, there is a sense of imbalance which is again mirrored in the unfair imbalance of power during this time. The questioning of the Holocaust, or the attempt to break down barriers of communication come from the female characters. They are more divulgent, yet again, they are repressed. Hitler’s girlfriend reaches out to Bruno and shows affection which counts as emotional communication, Bruno’s mother is constantly arguing with her husband. Bruno’s grandmother is the bravest of them all, and outright challenges her son in what he is doing. The children’s lack of information and naivety could stem from the fact that they are starved from feminine affection. The Holocaust was a ‘man-made’ event, with emphasis on ‘man’, hence lack of feminine values and a feeling of absence or one-sidedness in the narrative.
That’s about all I can think about for now. However I’m pretty sure there is more to say about the ending and the meaning of Bruno’s fate. I’m pretty sure it’s more than just poetic (in)justice for his father’s crimes. It could be another more subtle, but in-your-face theme of how the son pays for the father’s crimes. Ultimately the Jews in the concentration camps were also paying the price of a crime committed by their forefathers; the crucifixion of Christ.
EDITED: Based on the response of a fellow commentor, I felt compelled to amend the end of my review (namely the last sentence above). What I should have said was that the Romans (Pilate) killed Jesus, but according to some scriptures the ancient Jews had just as much input into his death by creating allegations against him. If you wish to read my views on the subject then take a look at the comments section below; my review is merely an attempt to anaylse and draw parallels with what Boyne is trying to represent on a literary level. I will not comment on this further as this is a book review not a platform to discuss religious issues and in the current political/ religious climate. If you wish to do that, find yourself another forum, as it will probably be more welcome there than it is here.
So, what do you think? Got any other views on the subject? Do you agree/ disagree with any of the above?
- The Absolutist by John Boyne: December Book Club Choice (smartgirlsbookclub.wordpress.com)
- Top Ten Books About The Impact of War (trishadm.wordpress.com)
- Great Summer Reads For Children/Teens (blogs.abc.net.au)
- A look at books – Irish gems of short stories, novels and history (irishcentral.com)