The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

I’d heard of this book years ago – it was made into a film in 2008 – but have only just got around to reading it. Like The Storyteller and The Complete Maus, it’s about the Holocaust, and it took me a little while to work up to reading it, as I wanted to make sure I was in a good place mentally.

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a pretty short and (subject matter aside) easy read. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a children’s book, but in feel it reads a little like one, especially because the protagonist is a nine year old boy; however, in approaching this review I’ve assumed that – because of the subject matter – it’s not written for children. I think my opinion would change slightly if it was.

Anyway, the narrative is written from the point of view of Bruno, the nine year old son of a commandant in the Nazi party. We follow his anger at the unfairness with which he is forced to move from his lovely home and his three best friends for life because the Fury has cause his father to have to move to Outwith. We see Bruno settle grudgingly into his new home with the weird fence a little ways away, and slowly forget his three best friends for life back in Berlin as he adjusts to his new surroundings. We follow his as he goes exploring, and one day meets a young boy – about his age – dressed in the cloth cap and striped pyjamas that he notices all the people on the other side of the fence wear.

Sensing that he probably wouldn’t be allowed to explore much if his parents knew he’d made friends with Schmuel (for that is the boy’s name), Bruno keeps the friendship a secret, but visits Schmuel almost every day, bringing stolen scraps of food (Schmuel seems so hungry all the time!) and talking with his friend. One day, Schmuel can’t find his father, and the boys concoct a plan to smuggle Bruno under the fence in disguise, so he can help his friend find his lost parent…

There were lots of criticisms of the book (and I assume the subsequent film as well) in terms of the realism of the story. Historically speaking, a nine-year-old boy, too weak or young to work, would not have been interred at Auschwitz, but would have been killed straight away. And certainly, a prisoner in Auschwitz would hardly have had the freedom to develop a clandestine friendship with someone on the other side of the fence, unbeknownst to the guards and other inmates. However, having finished the book, I don’t believe factual accuracy was the point that Boyne was trying to make with this story.

Like Look Who’s Back – another implausible/improbable/impossible plot around the Nazis and Holocaust, the point is not whether this could actually have happened within the historical context. With The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, the reader is faced with the realities of what did happen through the things that happen to Bruno – Bruno is angry about being forced to move, and children were ripped from their homes and sent to ghettos and death camps. Bruno’s parents argue and seem as though they might live apart, and couples, families, communities were torn apart permanently with no warning. The normality and innocence of Bruno’s story only highlights the atrocities of the things the we know were done, to real human beings.

Also like Look Who’s Back, a major point of the book is the wilful ignorance of the general populace. Bruno’s naïvety and misunderstanding of the horrors and crimes of which his young friend is a victim comes to represent the deliberate blindness of the rest of the adult world – the refusal to see or acknowledge the crimes against humanity that were being perpetrated – while in the former, the insistence of the fictional modern Germany on treating the real Hitler like he and his ideas are a hilarious joke is brought to a point (in the film adaptation at least) when one old woman explicitly points out that people thought Hitler was joking in the 1930s, too.

Ultimately, I found this a very worthwhile read. The point for me was to bring home the humanity and the human impact of these crimes (something that can be lost when looking at the facts, and the sheer staggering numbers involved) – although I do appreciate the point that critics make about the implausibility of the plot. For me, that didn’t undermine the gravity of the facts, but that may be something about which you wish to make up your own mind.

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