by John Boyne
Transworld Publ. Ltd UK
Reviewed by Jodie
Adult novels focused around children’s experiences came back into literary fashion a few years ago with big hype books like Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ and David Mitchell’s ‘Black Swan Green’. At first this device was considered charming but as it has been over used it had become incredibly tedious. However this hasn’t stood in the way of authors trotting out their consciously naïve characters and making money off their young backs.
In ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ Bruno is a German child during WWII; the son of a difficult father who is a true believer in Aryan supremacy. Bruno likes their house in Berlin, living near his grandparents and his two ‘best friends for life’. He’s a generally happy, average and overly sweet little boy. One day he comes home to find his things being packed by the main and is told that his parents are moving the family to a mysterious new house for reasons that Bruno can not understand. It’s all very confusing and readers should feel for the poor boy uprooted from all that he knows. Personally I felt that this was impossible as the author, John Boyne seemed to have erected many barriers to halt anyone thinking of empathising with his main characters.
Bruno is an extremely annoying main character through no fault of his own. He tries to be brave, respectful and yet questioning but a syrupy tone, unnecessary repetition of childlike phrases and a patronizing third person narrator constantly sabotage this hopeful character sketch. Bruno’s lack of awareness about the war and the plight of the Jews is believable, after all he is only eight and his parents are distant figures. His terms of expression, however are the words of an adult who believes that children are simple to explain. Bruno’s constant repetition of forced phrases will make readers want to reach into the book and strangle him. Boyne is attempting to express innocence and instinctive knowledge of what is right and wrong but what he actually creates is a version of ‘Just William’ without the teeth.
After Bruno and his family move to their new home at ‘Out With’ Bruno sees the Jewish interment camp full of people in striped pyjamas. He sets out to explore and ends up forming a friendship with a Jewish boy called Shmuel who lives behind he camp’s fence. Shmuel is not in ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ nearly enough considering the title and that he is a much more thoughtfully created character than Bruno. He has also been taken from his home with no explanation and contrasting his experience with Bruno’s just makes Boyne’s main character appear uninteresting. How can Bruno’s move be expected to compare with Shmuel’s journey to the labour camp? Shmuel’s voice avoids much of the patronizing, heavy hand that Bruno’s suffers from and his bewilderment at his situation sounds more genuine. Shmuel outshines Bruno and perhaps that is how is should be as Shmuel’s story of oppression and horror is what all stories of WWII should help us to remember. Perhaps Boyne’s reason for making Bruno the main character instead of Shmuel is that he hopes to use Bruno to illustrate Germany’s reluctance to admit the horrors that were occurring and their lack of real knowledge about the Nazi objectives. If this is his intention then he makes these points at the expense of the reader’s experience.
I suspect that the immense interest this book has generated centres around its ending. The stark ending of the novel is chilling and will have readers willing it not to happen as soon as they see it coming but it is an ending that, once carefully dissected, is rather objectionable. Bruno’s parents decide that he and his sister should be moved back to Berlin. Bruno and Shmuel make a plan for Bruno’s final visit to the fence, he will go under the wire into the camp disguised as a boy like Shmuel. Unfortunately Bruno and Shmuel are caught up in an execution group and the children die. Immediately this ending evokes feeling of horror as Bruno dies by accident but why does this feel so horrific when throughout the story we hear of Shmuel’s relatives disappearing and groups of Jews are murdered each day? You can argue that Bruno’s death seems especially terrible as readers become involved with him throughout the book but would the ending have seemed so abhorrent if only Shmuel had died? It could also be argued that Bruno’s parents not knowing what has happened to their son makes the ending so tragic but earlier in the book Shmuel’s father disappears and Shmuel has no idea what ha happened to him. Surely, this should seem equally tragic. I believe that it is the feeling that a mistake has been made, that Bruno has been ‘wrongly’ destroyed as he is not a Jew destined to die, that elicits a feeling of unpreventable car crash horror from this ending. If Boyne has deliberately written this ending to produce this uncomfortable idea then it is a masterstroke designed to wake society from its apathy to historical genocide. Otherwise it shows a distressing lack of awareness in an author writing about the Holocaust.
The ending consolidates my idea that this book is not the revolutionary new take on the Holocaust that it has been touted as but is instead a simplistic moral tale. The innocent child, fathered by an evil man tries his best in the world but is always destined to be destroyed as a punishment for his father’s sins. The story of the Jews is almost inconsequential in this book because Bruno does not understand the real awfulness of their treatment and so the narrator, focused on expressing Bruno’s thoughts can not properly articulate the horror of their situation. Readers will gain no new insights into the Final Solution but will simply find old ideas reiterated.