Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Two thoughts clash in my mind when I write this review about John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’. This is about how to treat a historic event in its reality versus children’s fiction around a prohibitive topic. It was a risk that John Boyne was taking and he chose to tiptoe on the reality bit and presents the story from a 9-year-old’s perspective.
The innocence of the perspective has to be first acknowledged, or else we will be discussing the veracity of the fable, which I would rather not. As a book reviewer, I follow the author than take an independent stand, not because I don’t deplore and condemn the gruesome events at the Auschwitz camp, but because there are enough revelations of the gruesomeness that filter through the innocent and naive perspective of a 9-year old boy.
The fact that Grandmother would turn in her grave if she realized that the Fury had sent his condolences on her death expresses the author’s position on the German regime of the times.
‘Fury’ and ‘Out-with’ are two instances when a 9-year-old boy struggles to get the names synonymous with the Holocaust — Fuhrer, and Auschwitz. I can surmise why John Boyne would have chosen to tiptoe because the story is a seeping narrative of childhood’s innocence that soaks slowly into horror toward the end.
The boy, Bruno is shocked to find that his things are being packed by his maid Maria under the strict instructions of Mother. Mother is nice but always draws the line when she means business. His house has certain out-of-bound areas, especially Father’s office. He is called only when Father wants to meet him there.
In intermittent flashbacks in intervening chapters, the author covers the incidents leading to the first scene of the story. This includes the backstory of the family. The pride of the menfolk is demonstrated by Grandfather, then Father about their Fatherland, their feeling of depravity and injustice after the Great War, fueled by the Fury, who installs Father as the commandant of the Out-With Camp and their uniform, neatly pressed on one side. Grandmother denounces the promotion and storms out of their house, never to be seen alive by Bruno again.
The visit of the Fury and the taller woman, Eva, for an unannounced dinner brings out the most undesirable change in his life. Bruno hates the haughty and misbehaved guest — the Fury but likes the gentler and considerate, Eva. Here we get a glimpse of Fury’s personality and the hatred he invokes in Bruno’s mind.
The interactions with Gretel and Lieutenant Kotler bring out the mind of the younger generation — young boys radicalized into Fury’s Order, and young girls, head over heels when meeting virile young soldiers, but indoctrinated with the same thoughts. ‘We are Germans, and the ones in the camps are Jews, and we don’t like them, so they live in the camp.’ Her banter with Bruno brings out her clear yet misguided understanding of German youth at that point. Finally, Gretel’s transformation is a subtle indication of this indoctrination — from rearranging dolls she spends most of her time reading newspapers and rearranging pins on maps, indicating her succumbing to the Fury’s Order.
The interactions with Pavel, who is a waiter, but in reality a Jewish doctor gives Bruno, an understanding of the value of timely considered action, at the same time he also begins to understand the situation Pavel is in. As Pavel weakens, his response to Father and Kotler during dinner is erratic, and he is treated abysmally by Kotler, as he drops and breaks a wine bottle.
The way Kotler treats Shmuel when he visits to clean the glasses, calling him a thief and threatening him with expletives and punishment opens Bruno’s mind ( and the readers’) to how Jews were treated in social scenarios.
The most important thread of the storyline runs from the first scene. Bruno loses his friends for life in Berlin, as he moves with his parents and sister Gretel to Out-with. He feels lonely in their new house, which is close to the Out-with camp, now run by Father. After trying to find ways to spend time at the house, including his interactions with his maid Maria and the Hopeless Case — Gretel, he finally ventures out. His curiosity is piqued by the scenery outside his window — a camp with houses where men in striped pajamas gather and wander about.
His exploration along the camp fence leads to him meeting a Jewish boy from Poland called Shmuel, who is born on the same date and year as Bruno. The conversations lead to understanding and friendship, and they continue to meet when it does not rain. Bruno brings food to Shmuel and hides their friendship from everybody else at his home.
Mother gets bored at Out-with and finally, Father agrees to send them back to Berlin. The friends meet and decide to say goodbye the next day. Bruno promises Shmuel that he will help trace his father by getting under the fence in striped pajamas. The next day, the boys meet and Bruno changes into the camp clothes. They venture into the camp, searching for evidence of Shmuel’s Papa.
What he sees is different from what he had imagined. He sees soldiers, dressed in full bright uniforms, smiling, mock-firing, poking, and abusing men with shaved heads and in striped pajamas. It is too much for him to take in.
Bruno’s instincts push him to leave the camp and join Mother who is packing to leave for Berlin. Meanwhile, the march that took Shmuel’s Papa away now sweeps the two friends in its deluge. They get shepherded into a chamber, which the boys believe to be a rain shelter. As the horror happens, Bruno reaffirms his friendship with Shmuel by holding his hands firmly.
The visuals drip with innocence and naive interpretations of Bruno and Shmuel, we dawn upon the horror that trails their innocence in the final chapter.
Bruno wants to be an explorer. His natural inquisitiveness takes him on a walk along the camp fence. This inquisitiveness manifests in his offer to search for Shmuel’s missing Papa, which in turn leads him across the fence and gets him into the gas chamber.
“The thing about exploring is that you have to know whether the thing you’ve found is worth finding. Some things are just sitting there, minding their own business, waiting to be discovered. Like America. And other things are probably better off left alone. Like a dead mouse at the back of the cupboard.”
― John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
It might have been better off left alone, but he ends up dead along with a friend in the gas chamber. Without his exploration, we would not know what Shmuel and his family were going through along inside the camp. Through this exploration, Bruno ( and the reader) see what is there up, close and personal.
The scenes are led by the simple visuals that the boys see. Then the naive interpretations of the 9-year-olds follow. Finally, the horror trails their innocence. The boys live their lives in the moment, clearly and present, not knowing the horrific end they are going to suffer. I am not sure about the criticism of the ‘missing reality’ here, but the way the horror grew on me, between the last words of Bruno, and the last chapter, which explains the aftermath, is the most telling part of the narrative of what the boys went through in the gas chamber of Auschwitz camp.
The reader’s mind switches from the 9-year-old’s perspective to being themselves, just realizing the horrendous events and the aftermath. Even if it is historically inaccurate, the way the visuals grow in the reader’s mind and then explode from naivety to horror requires some level of shock absorption. So I would recommend this book for the discerning reader rather than a child.
~Ashok Subramanian © 2022