John Boyne: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Boyne, John (2007), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Definitions
ISBN 978-0-099-48782-1

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it’s important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

This is what it says on the back of my edition and I can’t say I disagree. Well, I don’t think you should read or even touch this book, but if you are bent on reading it, the advice above is sound. This review will contain spoilers, lots, really. So, do not read on if you really want to read the book.

Now, for all the others: excellent choice. It’s one of the worst books I’ve read in a while and I regret every second I spent with it. The writing is mostly decent, the construction clever, but its many flaws overshadow the rest so much it’s barely worth mentioning the positive aspects in such a short review. According to interviews he gave, John Boyne wrote this one in a matter of days, on an inspiration, without constructing it beforehand as he usually does. Instead of devoting a certain amount of thought and consideration to a topic that has been the subject of much writing so far, he basically wings it. Reading The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas it’s quite obvious what the idea was. Not working on it, thinking through the kinks, making it work, however, has marred the book, making it into the mess it is. Not that that’s any concern to Boyne, who made it big with the book that sold incredibly well, and was both generously translated and made into a high-profile movie. So, seen from that angle, the book is a huge success, and its flaws go a long way in explaining why that is the case.

I’m starting with the plot and, just a reminder, there will be spoilers: The story is about Bruno, the son of a prominent Nazi officer. His father is relocated to Auschwitz in 1943 and the whole family has to follow. So they move from Berlin to Poland, and Bruno is understandably miffed that he has to leave his friends behind and his old haunts, but he’s not the only one. Everybody hates it there, in the house that is so close to the camp that you can watch the prisoners from it, and they hate it because nothing much happens, because there are few children, because the house is much smaller and much less comfortable than their accommodations in Berlin. Now and then Nazis visit, which is bothersome but on the whole, it’s boring. Until, that is, Bruno discovers the camp where he finds that hundreds of people walk around in striped pajamas and, most importantly, children. He walks up to the fence and strikes up a friendship with a boy on the other side, they talk and find out they’re not just the same age, they’ve been born on the very same day.

During the period of time that follows, Bruno has a few altercations with a Nazi officer who appears to be just generally mean-spirited; also, his friendship with Shmuel, the boy on the other side, grows and grows until, at the end, Shmuel reports worries. Shmuel’s father is gone and the boy has been looking for him all over the camp. Bruno decides to help and dons a striped pajama, which nicely fits the shaved cranium that he sports on account of an infestation with lice. Shmuel lifts up the fence (the spot where they sit and talk is apparently the only one where that is possible because there “the base is not properly attached to the ground”) and Bruno crawls in. When night falls over Auschwitz, the two boys are rounded up with a number of other prisoners, led to the gas chambers. As we hear the door fall shut behind the boys, Bruno’s story basically ends. The last chapter tells us of the aftermath of the events, how the family moves back to Berlin, how they are all mystified by Bruno’s disappearance. When the father finds out what happened, he is devastated, loses all will to live and

[a] few months after that some other soldiers came […] and Father was ordered to go with them, and he went without complaint and he was happy to do so because he didn’t really mind what they did to him anymore.

That poor SS officer. The book closes with a moralistic two-liner, more or less reiterating the old line about being watchful because something like that could happen anywhere. Yeah. It is these two lines which may have prompted many critics, inexplicably, to suggest that this book was a salient and important contribution to literature in general and Shoah literature in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth. John Boyne’s book’s premise, two boys of the exact same age meeting in such a situation may be improbable but that is fine. What isn’t is the underlying, larger premise: that a nine-year old son of a Nazi official would not know what a Jew is (there’s a discussion in the book where his sister explains to him what a Jew is), that he would not recognize the star of David on the “striped pajama” his best friend’s wearing. This is really the central assumption: a completely and utterly innocent boy stumbles into that kind of situation and dies at the hands of this atrocious machinery.

Personally, I found that incredibly hard to swallow. I would contrast this with the haunting episode in Jorge Semprun’s great novel Le Grand Voyage that takes place at a train station in Trier, where the main character’s transport, on its way to Buchenwald, makes a stop:

Il y a une gosse d’une dizaine d’années, avec ses parents, juste en face de notre wagon. Il écoute ses parents, il regarde vers nous, il hoche la tête. Puis le voilà qui part en courant. Puis le voilà qui revient en courant, avec une grosse pierre à la main. Puis le voilà qui s’approche de nous et qui lance la pierre, de toutes ses forces, contre l’ouverture près de laquelle nous nous tenons.

This then becomes part of a discussion between the protagonist and his companion, the mysterious gars de Sémur, who cries out in triumph: ha, see, these are the damn Germans. The protagonist, however, resists this. He asks what happens, how this boy has turned into a Nazi, what makes someone a Nazi, what leads to the boy being outside the train and him inside. The passage closes with this comment

Je me demande combien d’Allemands il va falloir tuer encore pour que cet enfant allemand ait une chance de ne pas devenir un boche. Il n’y est pour rien, ce gosse et il y est pour tout, cependant.

The doubt, the questions of how children turn into hateful creatures, espousing ideologies that they don’t even understand, all this is completely absent from Boyne’s book. Bruno’s just innocent and good. Has he never heard radio broadcasts ranting about Jews, never had a class that taught him about races, never saw one of the ubiquitous posters on the streets? That is strange and completely unbelievable but not enough for Boyne. Boyne is determined to purge his protagonist of all worldliness, of all connections to regular Germans and goes one step further, descending into complete idiocy. See, Bruno doesn’t get the word “Führer” and misunderstands it as “Fury”; dito with “Auschwitz” which turns in Bruno’s wondrous ears into “Out-with”. I do understand that the word Führer may sound strange to English ears, but I can assure you it doesn’t to German ears. There is no conceivable reason why Bruno should have difficulty understanding these things, especially since Bruno’s not stupid or hard of hearing or something like that.

One may cite his age, he is, after all, only nine. It’s an interesting age, since I think Berlin’s streets were largely judenrein by the time Bruno was alert enough to take in his surroundings. The boy in Semprun’s novel’s older as well. Maybe Bruno’s just too young? Do you remember how you perceived the world when you were his age? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it, so many years later? But see, when I was 8 years old the BRD (West Germany) took over the GRD (East Germany), and I vividly remember going to marches before that, loving heroes of the socialist state such as Ernst Thälmann and Thomas Müntzer, being outraged at the 200.000 killed in the bombing of Dresden (I was a gullible kid) and so forth. Now, I shouldn’t generalize from my own example, but the vividness of my memories is striking enough for me to reject Boyne’s assumptions out of hand. Especially since Boyne’s portrayal of Bruno is not restricted to the boy alone. There is one ardent Nazi in his book, two, if we count the father who is very conflicted about what he does sometimes. The other Germans are nice or even oppositional.

Since the book’s simple structure frequently invites us to read it in a symbolical manner, I suggest reading Bruno’s family as representing the German people. The grandparents, i.e. the past, the tradition, are against fascism, Bruno, the future, is completely oblivious of it, and friendly and trusting, and the parents are conflicted about it all. It’s really fascinating but Boyne has found a way to talk about the Shoah without having German perpetrators (the few Nazis don’t count. The old fairy tale of a takeover of Germany by a group of madmen explicitly exculpates Germans, that’s why it was so strong and popular after the war) or Jewish victims, really. There are victims, but the true tragedy of the book is not Shmuel’s (whose name is reminiscent of Busch’s infamous antisemitic caricature called Schmulchen Schievelbeiner) death, but Bruno’s. This seems to whisper: see, it’s not just Jews, it could happen to you as well. There is no sense of why it was Jews especially that bore the brunt of the holocaust, no historical sense of context and connections, and in what sense it “could happen to you as well”. By accident? In the 1930s, were Jews just in the wrong place at the wrong time? By accident on the wrong side of the fence?

Now, you could complain: doesn’t Boyne call his book a fable? Look, it says so right on the cover. Yeah well, that Boyne would call his book a fable is ridiculous and, to an extent disturbing. At the very least it’s a cop-out. There is a responsibility that comes with the topic and Boyne sidesteps it by applying that label. Yes, the tone of the writing does resemble such modern fables as Le Petit Prince but the content is different. Fables usually have no direct connection to concrete historical and political contexts, they are didactic, but they take a detour, by using anthropomorphic characters or personifications. The coincidences and improbabilities in this book do have a tinge of that, but little more than a tinge. The similarity is closer to magical realism than to actual fables. All that the label does is offer Boyne a way out of accountability. He doesn’t even work within an alternative history framework, like Tarantino’s new movie or books like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, at least that would be an unlikely reading, since most details fit the historical situation.

What’s disturbing about this label is the slight white-washing that the events experience at Boyne’s hand which is exacerbated by that label and the noncommittal attitude it betrays. He took the horror out of the events, and downplayed both Germans’ and Jews’ roles in it, as I maintained earlier. The Shoah, in Boyne’s book, is a given and not awfully interesting. Boyne focuses on the two boys at the fence, one of his points, presumably, being that chance put one outside and the other inside. But it’s not chance, is it? It’s a culturally ingrained ideology that had been stable for decades, an ideology that is still going strong. Why did Bruno’s father do what he did? Love of his country, is suggested. Why did his wife go along with it? There is little in the book that would help us answer these questions. See. this book is didactic, admonishing its readers to never forget that these things could happen again, but it is a wholly empty admonishment since it doesn’t offer its readers a way to understand why these things happened. Boyne makes, in a very pronounced and annoying manner, a point about roles that we assume and the uniforms we wear; in this way, wearing the uniform makes Bruno’s father a Nazi and wearing the striped pyjama, in the end, makes Bruno a victim. But this is a highly problematic point because, again, Boyne makes his discussions of victimhood judenrein. Bruno doesn’t become a Jew because of his behavior, he’s just a prisoner, marked by his clothes and mistaken in the dark by the guards.

Thus, Boyne gets by with the least amount of commitment and thinking. Mind you, he’s not the first to look at this angle but the many books that treat this subject in a infinitely more satisfying manner (most of those are for adults, such as Edgar Hilsenrath’s stupefying novel The Nazi and the Barber) how us the problem with the issue. One which is read by teens in school, is Max Frisch’s play Andorra, wherein a village’s prejudice and hate convinces one of their own that he’s a Jew. He starts to behave like a stereotypical Jew and is murdered in the end. He is murdered because everyone else believes he’s a Jew. It’s not as simple as wearing the wrong clothes. Frisch’s point is that prejudice against Jews is about more than simple appearance. It’s a pervasive complex of stereotypes, and one that a majority of the population shared. This pervasive, generally accepted prejudice made the Shoah, the efficient, calculated murder of millions in one of the most progressive European nations possible. To mark it as an accident is a stupendous rewriting of history. Is it an excuse that this a a book for children? It’s not. For one thing, the allusive nature of Boyne’s narrative, where even the gas chamber and Bruno’s death is never made explicit, limits the age group to one that has been educated about the Shoah before reading the book. And for another, Boyne creates a false, a wrong representation of the era, and no difficulty can excuse that. Boyne’s weirdly benign reading of the period is, however, quite en vogue these days.

I’ve not read another book by John Boyne and I never, ever, will, but judging from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, he is a decent writer who doesn’t like to think much. Yes, I said decent writer. If we divest the book of all that I find unbearable about it, what is left behind is a competently structured story, mostly somewhat well written. It’s written from the perspective of a child and you can see Boyne earnestly trying to convey a child’s voice here, and for the most part he gets that voice right. Sometimes that voice slips into a cranky mode but that’s it. However, as with most mediocre books about children, I have the impression that he confuses innocence with stupidity. At one point, Bruno’s asked whether he was watching something and he said he was just seeing it, and that was, apparently, a very smart distinction, or so the author tells us (it’s not), but there’s clearly a confusion, too, at work here, because, if the book were not a “fable” Boyne’s hero would be stupendously stupid, incapable of seeing, really. See, Boyne doesn’t just talk down talks down to his readers by presenting a whitewashed version of history, he even talks down to his own character, which the last chapter makes clear, which appears to be written from Bruno’s perspective since it’s written in his voice, which is revealing.

Boyne thinks too little of his readers and too much of himself. The result is a crappy book that I wish I’d never read and a dangerous book that I wish no-one would read. It is now that we need to remember our history as it was not as we would like it to be. People like David Irving are gaining leeway, the current pope is going down a very problematic path and overall antisemitism has been on the rise during the past years. We need to remember. We need to understand. Boyne understands nothing.

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6 thoughts on “John Boyne: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

  1. Pingback: John Boyne: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - World Literature Forum

  2. Not at all the bilious outburst you’d feared, I think – very tightly reasoned and balanced. If anything, the book seems to have been even more stupid than the movie.

    This was a big problem with the movie too: ‘This book is didactic, admonishing its readers to never forget that these things could happen again, but it is an empty admonishment since it doesn’t offer its readers a way to understand why these things happened.’

    That was one of the problems I had with the story being about the Shoah at all. You speak of Boyne’s laziness, and I think it is a mark of his laziness that , if this was conceived as a ‘fable’, he chose to give it such a well-known setting, familiar in more or less distorted form from a thousand movies and documentaries.

    Not only will this book not help Germans understand anything of their past, as you point out, it will not help anyone understand anything. Nazis are a convenient boogeyman to pin evil on for much of the rest of the world (including for instance in Indiana Jones movies). But treating them as such does not answer the question of how millions of people became involved in a movement that aimed to subjugate or kill millions of others. In fact it makes it easier to distance from the question of why the exact same thing keeps happening again and again amongst other aggregates of people.

    And that’s why I join you in condemning this lazy, ill-considered and pointless story.

  3. Pingback: Grownups: Robert Olmstead’s “Coal Black Horse” « shigekuni.

  4. There is no contest between a Semprun and his Grand Voyage and the badly written, badly researched rubbish John Boyce managed to produce.

    Semprun is honest and I find Boyce dishonest.But then Semprun, like Primo Levi, wrote about his experience, Boyce fabulated. And badly.

  5. Quite. But honesty, it’s not the right word, is it. Semprun’s genius is his use, indeed, of invention as a means to dislodge historical truth. Le Grand Voyage, as his other novels, contains invented events and characters, which makes for quite a bit of their genius.

  6. This is just … brilliant. I despised the book too, but I could never put my finger on why. This is the first time I’ve read your blog but I don’t think it’ll be the last!

    I’m working on a difficult personal post about studying “Holocaust Fiction” as a Jew – it’s striking some similar notes for me. Perhaps I’ll link you to it if I am every happy enough with it to publish it!

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