J.P. Donleavy: The Ginger Man

Donleavy, J. P. (2001), The Ginger Man, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-3795-1

J.P. Donleavy is an excellent writer, but a comparatively badly known one. His extraordinary early novels, published in rapid succession in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, received a moderate (but decent) amount of attention when they came out, but there has been precious little of that attention in the decades since. Unlike other writers of with a similarly miserable quality/attention-ratio, there has been no Donleavy revival. With Johnny Depp tipped for taking the lead role in a movie adaptation of one of his novels, that could change, though. The book (that may or may not be filmed) is The Ginger Man, Donleavy’s debut, and still his most famous novel. The Ginger Man is a major achievement, not just one of the best books I read this year, but one of the best American novels I’ve ever read, period. The plain facts are these: in The Ginger Man, Donleavy manages to create a book that uses and comments on the music and language of a literary tradition, all while inventing a very original, singular use of language. His originality is not jarring, not difficult. On the contrary, reading The Ginger Man is like watching a virtuoso have fun with the tools of his trade but with the added pleasure of being immersed in an intoxicating narrative stream. A funny, wild obsession with death and life, it’s both clever and stirring, and should be a staple at universities as well as on the shelves of avid readers. The fact that it’s neither is disappointing, and should be corrected as soon as possible. Buy this book and, if you have the opportunity, write about it. In the trajectory of American canonical prose, Donleavy is a singular writer whose role and importance has yet to be fully recognized. But most of all: read it, read it. It may fill a gap in you that you didn’t know you had, and its protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, will never again leave your imagination.

I’ll just say it: in the character of Sebastian Dangerfield, John Patrick Donleavy has created one of the most stunning characters in modern fiction. Donleavy draws on many sources, voices and registers, but the fact of the matter is that Dangerfield is at once a bitter everyman, das ewig Männliche, so to say, and a finely tuned individual character. Dangerfield’s choices, his attitude, they distinguish him from characters that might seem similar, such as Henry Miller’s scabrous portfolio of protagonists. He’s a multifaceted character, who invites identification, derision, humor, sadness and revulsion. Despite the sheen of realism on his actions, he seems to have fallen out of time: Dangerfield is not a historical character, representing a time long gone, nor is he properly of his time, which would be the 1950s. Actually, The Ginger Man was published in London and Paris in 1955, but not until 1965 has Donleavy seen a publication of an unexpurgated version of his marvelous novel in the United States. That delay mirrors in a way two levels within the novel, its overtly Irish setting, and its American sensibility, if one can call it that; two layers which seem to come naturally to a writer like Donleavy, an American who has lived most of his writing life in Ireland, an American with Irish roots to boot. It may be that specific genealogical mixture that creates the high level of believability in the book. Notwithstanding the fact that The Ginger Man is highly artificial, Donleavy appears to completely inhabit his material. I already mentioned the musicality of the book, and reading The Ginger Man, we have the impression of a folk or blues singer, reaching deep into tradition, into the voluble core of culture to extract an essence that he then turns into his art.

Sebastian Dangerfield, his wife, mistresses and friends, appear to be realistic creations, faithful to observed and artistically cleared reality. The plot of The Ginger Man is easily enough summarized. Dangerfield, an American, is, at the beginning, a married man, living with his English wife Marion, whom he married for her impressive bosom and her fashionably bucked teeth, in a squalid apartment. The fact that the house they live in is adjacent to an abyss (and slowly dropping into it) might even be read as a minor symbolical fancy. Subsequently, the small family will move into two other houses, eventually even taking in a boarder, until Marion leaves her insufferable husband. Dangerfield is a horrible husband to have: he sleeps with every woman that would have him, is out drinking almost every night, and incurs debts in order to finance his vices. He doesn’t work, in fact, he expresses horror at the idea of working regularly. Instead, his small family lives off the small check from the G.I. Bill that arrives weekly; what’s more, Dangerfield’s father is rich, and Sebastian hopes for a substantial inheritance that will wipe out all his debts and allow him to live comfortably. Marion is reticent, no match for Dangerfield’s vigorous libido and his gluttonous ways, and it’s not until the last third of the book that Dangerfield takes up with a woman who is just as mad and wild as he is, he, “the wild / Ginger Man.” All this seems straightforward enough, but it’s hard, really, to describe the book without giving away the symbolic and metaphorical underpinnings of a great many aspects of the novel, or of its use of cultural and literary cliché. In fact, this reader had the impression that every seemingly realistic aspect of The Ginger Man could be footnoted and referenced.

Donleavy, born in 1929, is, ultimately, a writer of exile, greedy for the voice and feel of his new Irish home, with the eye and ear of a poet or musician. He writes with the heart of an exile, lacing his symphony of sex, violence and religion with just enough distance, thinking and commentary. See, overall, I think, there’s a tension in The Ginger Man between form, or maybe artifice, on the one hand, and the basic music of the book on the other. It’s in his role as a novelist, that Donleavy seems to me a very American writer, best read in a group with writers such as Robert Coover or John Barth rather than with writers such as James Joyce or Joyce Cary, although the voice in The Ginger Man owes a lot to the Joycean model. Donleavy navigates between these poles with such a deftness of hand and sureness of mind that it’s actually rather stunning that The Ginger Man could be his (or anyone’s) debut novel. It’s so fully formed, finished and powerful an achievement that many writers would be hard pressed to produce anything of comparable quality in their whole life. The most impressive and stunning aspect of The Ginger Man is its language. I would argue that J.P. Donleavy is first and foremost a creator of language. Ideas, characters, references, structure, they are all second to the actual language employed by this extraordinary writer. Or rather: his control and use of language is such that it creates the web of ideas and especially the character of Sebastian Dangerfield as we find it in the pages of The Ginger Man. The impoverished ideas (if we can even call them that) of recent critics such as David Shields would be blunt and useless tools when dealing with a writer and a book like this.

The Ginger Man, though the work of an American writer, is peppered with English and Irish phrases, mimicking the melodies of both languages, and, as with almost all its details, reflects its artful use of dialect, linguistic variation and slang in the plot. Dangerfield is a classic ne’er-do-well, up to his ears in debt, but constantly racking up new debts and liabilities. His puzzling success in doing so, his apparent ability to always continue whatever nocent habit he happens to have acquired, are shown, in the book, to be only vaguely connected to his winning personality or his rhetorical skills. Instead, it’s his versatile use of various dialects of English, whether Irish English, RP/Queen’s English or American English, Dangerfield makes able and ample use of them all, depending on what effect he hopes to achieve. We as readers follow his tongue down these wild alleyways, spellbound by his music as his various lovers are, and the merchants, barmen, and landlords, of course. But the actual dialogue isn’t even the best or most fascinating aspect of Donleavy’s use of language. The narration is sometimes third person, sometimes first person, but it’s always personal, focusing on Dangerfield, channeling his voice. Donleavy stretches and shortens syntax at will, littering his writing with ellipses, skillfully controlling speed and melody of the story that is being told. At times we find almost a Joycean stream of consciousness, as actions, observations and emotions vie with each other in the bubbling cauldron of Dangerfield’s story. This invokes an immediacy that underlines the perennial hurry, the progressive push that is evidenced in Dangerfield’s character. Whereas Joyce’s work used that same intimacy and immediacy, gained through its use of language, to make a meaningful observations about day-to-day life and its mythical underpinnings, Donleavy’s interests lie elsewhere.

The forward thrust of the language pushes through the chronotopical boundaries of modernism, although, as a novel, the book is closed, rounded, a text that is as much about beginnings as it is about endings. Like many old texts, in the manner, for example, of Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, Donleavy incorporates small poems within the text or, more often, at the end of a chapter. These small poems are, like Bashō’s, dense little bullets of meaning, and are part of his overarching formal and intellectual structure of the novel. They provide both a link to the modernists, as well as to the Beat movement that was influenced by many Asian poets, including Bashō. They also create a distance between The Ginger Man and Joyce’s Ulysses. While Joyce, in the end, passed up the opportunity to name his chapters in the printed text, and added the famous table of symbols and references that structure his novel not until after publication later, Donleavy’s text explicitly insists upon its artificial nature. The inserted poems and letters as well as the recurring poetically distant paragraphs ask the book’s reader to see the book more as an object: it is this method that makes the stream of consciousness visible. Instead of a retread of Joycean language, it uses it as Joycean language, as a connection between the Irish setting and the ‘Irish style’. It is an artfully struck note that Donleavy knew would resonate with his readers’ memories of Joyce, but at the same time, he never limits the Joycean register, boxes it in or restricts it in any way. There is no attempt to sunder the reality of Dublin (which feels very real and is probably accurately described) from the literately mirrored images of Dublin.

Instead, Donleavy lets all these aspects coexist, as several worlds within the same book. The book doesn’t force its reader to decide upon any one reading, any specific, ‘true’ frame. This postmodern ambiguity is also evident in the images and symbols used and evoked in the novel. The Ginger Man carries associations to the gingerbread man from the fairy tales (chased by a hungry crowd of peasants and animals, escaping them all, only to be, woefully, eaten by the fox), as well as, loosely, to the figure of Jesus Christ (after all, Dangerfield frequently assumes the pose of savior, and his seduction of women often takes the form, almost, of a conversion), and to various traditions and tropes of satire. Between the surreal, fantastical setting of fairy tales and the strict, harshly melodious structure of the Catechism, Donleavy spins a tale that seems to aim for radicalism, for an obscene modernity, but is actually far more inclusive. Yes, The Ginger Man is a satiric work, taking its cue (and the protagonist’s hair color) from such antecedents as Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where it says that “[i]t is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.” In its depictions of the material limitations on life in Ireland, its descriptions of the strictures and sorrows that poverty means for those who suffer from it, Donleavy uses the sharpness and precision of image and metaphor that distinguishes most acute satire, but as a whole the novel lacks the intellectual discipline or the focus of good satire. Instead, satire turns out to be yet another of the many notes woven into in the musical tapestry of The Ginger Man.

It is impossible to do justice to the many complexities of The Ginger Man, but I should mention the morality or immorality of the novel, since it’s not an unimportant aspect of a novel that has been banned for immorality and that still has to stave off accusations of immorality. Sebastian Dangerfield is an awful person. He abuses his women, is disloyal and unfaithful to all his friends and all the women he sleeps with in the book. And there is not a shred of regret in him, not an ounce of repentance. Dangerfield just continues on and on and on. The novel makes no attempt to stop him, explain him or disapprove of him. In fact, a case of abuse at the end turns a difficult situation in his favor, and overall, he’s maddeningly successful. It is to the use of religion that we must look to make sense of this, I think. Ireland, which “has a great capacity for hatred” is “not a place for women”, a character exclaims. In his sexual exploits, Dangerfield makes use of established patterns of behavior of the people around him. Just as he knows when to appear American and when Irish, so he can manipulate women by deciding upon the correct use of force. The society he lives in is one that repels him, alienates him and the cold application of implicit rules is his reaction to that society. We don’t have to like him, but his hurt and harried soul is something that many people will recognize in their own heart.

Dangerfield is frequently beset by a nostalgic yearning for the rural landscapes of his home, which come close to epiphanies, causing him to mutter “God must be female”. At one point he says about Ireland “this country is foreign to me.” He wouldn’t, however, every really return home, because home is his father’s country. The alienation he feels is the conflict with a male-oriented culture, that he can’t escape within or without his self. The language slows down, becomes careful, tender and languorous only (but not always) when describing sexual acts or other acts of intimacy with women. There isn’t an all-out attack on fathers in the book, after all, Dangerfield is not only a father himself, but an alpha male to boot. On the level of language and reference, too, this is not the modernist impulse of ‘making it new’, with the Freudian impulses described in Harold Bloom’s only good book; its attitude towards patriarchy is similar to the one that manifested itself in canonical American prose works such as Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor or Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father. That last book is maybe the most relevant comparison. The alienation Dangerfield feels isn’t one between the world and him, it’s caused by the fact that he represents much of the world outside within him, and its dying off is mirrored in his own prolonged process of dying. In one of the best of these small poems he tells us: “my heart / twisted / with dying”. With his life at stake, its a small wonder that he flees into life, procreation, intoxication.

Hence, Donleavy’s irreverent, even blasphemous use of religious references is not a simple satiric attack on religion. It reflects rather an unease with a certain form of religion, because Dangerfield’s pursuit of happiness is strongly religious. The fear of death that permeates even the funniest pages in this hilarious novel is not a Freudian or existentialist fear. It is a religious fear, fueled by closeness of the Dionysian abyss. God isn’t dead, he’s a deus absconditus, an absent, a hidden God. In this reductive, but (I think) correct reading, form, and language become parts of ritual. This seems to be an oddly heavy note on which to end a review of a light, funny, wild novel, but the vastness, the rich nature of Donleavy’s spectacular debut invites readings like this. It is a book of countless treasures, but primarily, it provides a ride like few others can. If you trust me, read the book.


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Ed O’Loughlin: Not Untrue And Not Unkind

O’Loughlin, Ed (2009), Not Untrue And Not Unkind, Penguin
ISBN 978-1-844-88185-7

I used to look forward to the announcement of the Booker long- and shortlist and the eventual winner. Many books and writers I hold dear I pilfered off those lists, but in recent years I’ve found the Booker judges’ decisions and choices frequently bewildering. Now, I’m well aware that people tend to complain about prizes a lot, claiming objective stances for their own peculiar tastes. So, I’m well aware that it’s my literary taste-buds that led me to disliking Hensher’s last novel and loving Rushdie’s most recent. So what I said is not a general complaint about the deterioration of culture or literary prizes, it’s a personal complaint, a dissatisfaction with the reliability of literary authorities. It’s laziness, basically. Thus, it won’t do to start with winners or short-listed writers; as I commenced to do last year, I’ll start reading books at random off of the longlist, hopefully turning up a gem or two. This here, Ed O’Loughlin’s debut novel Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the first of those reads and most certainly not a gem. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the worst book on this year’s longlist. It’s just a thoroughly bad novel, a disappointment on almost every level, although there is much that is, potentially, interesting about this book’s enterprise, starting with the structure, which appears, at first, to be intriguing.

Not Untrue And Not Unkind contains two narratives, basically, both relayed to us through a first person narrator named Owen, who’s a journalist and reporter. One, we could call it the frame narrative, although that would not be quite true, is set in Dublin, the other is set in various countries in Africa. The Dublin narrative tells us about the inside workings of a newspaper and it is roughly divided into past and present. The past part is about Owen’s faltering career in the newsroom, doing odd jobs, hoping for a promotion, before deciding to try his hand at freelance reporting in Africa. But, as in the Africa section, the contexts and environments are kind of blended into the background while Owen is busy drawing a portrait of the people in these environments (without making any insightful connections between one and the other, really). The character he’s centrally occupied with in these parts, is Cartwright, a mean editor, who keeps tabs on ‘his’ journalists, compiling, as it turns out, extensive reports on each. He enjoys confronting and humiliating them over their mistakes and errors, to which end he invites them out for a coffee where he takes his time to slowly erode and dismember their self-esteem. It is after such a humiliation (although not necessarily because of it) that Owen decides to go to Africa. The present part sets in after Cartwright vanishes and Owen goes through his desk (and, later, his apartment), remembering his past life as a journalist and reporter.

Cartwright is a catalyst of sorts and in one of the final chapters you can clearly see how O’Loughlin means to use this narrative to close the meandering Africa story but the book rather hobbles to a close, adding chapters upon chapters that make the obvious just more obvious; to be honest, I felt manhandled by the author during the closing pages, due to the relief of finishing the book, however, I wasn’t overly bothered by it. But the fact remains that the author doesn’t appear to have confidence in his own creations. The poet James Merrill once, famously, said, roughly, that whenever he stalled in writing a poem, he focused on the objects in the poem, the furniture and things like that. Not Untrue And Not Unkind is not that kind of novel. The environment just consists of props for O’Loughlin’s characters and they themselves are but hastily constructed scaffolds for his plot and other ideas. This is something to regret when encountering characters such as Cartwright, where we can almost smell the wasted potential. Like the close of the book, wasted potential is marked by the reader’s disappointment at the end of the book. Throughout the book I kept thinking there was more good stuff in the back, more good stuff to come, that all this was just preparatory, that it was a lead-in for something that would make reading all the toss worth it, until the great catastrophe near the end disabused me of such a notion. Cartwright’s character is unrealized but then he doesn’t play such a major role in the book.

A much larger role is played by Owen’s fellow journalists in the sections of the book that deal with Africa, and the flaws of O’Loughlin’s characterizations are more of a problem there, as is his disregard for contexts and environments. Superficially, these sections are quite interesting. We, who usually only consume the end product of journalistic work, get to see the photographers and writers at work, but actually, we hear little about that aspect of their lives. When we do, it can be arresting, and O’Loughlin is clearly capable of constructing compelling images, such as a correspondent who is confined to a small room where he talks to TV stations around the world and there, in his chair, in front of the camera he spends his life waiting for the next call, slowly going mad. Images like this are very few and far between. Most of the time, we hear the journalists bicker, drink, fall in and out of love with one another. The group of journalists isn’t a constant entity, people drift in and out again, the only constant is Owen. The literary reference that came to mind when I read the book was Ernest Hemingway’s masterful The Sun Also Rises, which is, I think, one of the best short books of its time, or of its century. One of my favorite novels, in any case.

There is much that connects these two books, but O’Loughlin falls short in almost every respect. Now, it’s no big flaw to fall short of as well made a novel as The Sun Also Rises but it is if the results are as singularly uninteresting as they are in this case. It’s a big risk to assume the stance, to use the tools that Hemingway uses. He himself, in some late novels, showed how easily this kind of writing turns into dullness, into unconvincing posture. What aggravates the problem in Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the fact that everything else that Owen talks about becomes unconvincing as well, and this is a problem with a book that tackles as fickle a subject as African politics and their reflection in the Western media. For a novel of places, a novel that is concerned with all kinds of places in Africa (it does mark places in Africa as places, in contrast to Dublin, which is basically the unmarked backdrop to the whole thing), it is remarkably weak on that count as well. All the African countries are treated as one big ‘African’ country, except for the few passages that contain explicit references to persons and events. This approach completely wipes out any possibility to understand something or to have any kind of insight into any of these events. All we have is a group of vaguely neurotic journalists who travel through Africa, taking notes and pictures. It’s not actually bad, just uninteresting. Disappointing. It’s not moving nor intellectually challenging in any way. It’s just there.

Even the huge amount of violence in the book doesn’t change that. Although, again, O’Loughlin is capable of producing affecting images, as he demonstrates in the story of a man mistakenly left for dead, he makes little enough use of this capability. Mostly, we are confronted with images that are calculated to shock but fail to achieve that goal. There is a weird kind of economy behind this writing, as if the author drew up a table, assigning moments of shock to a portion of the book and moments of emotional distress to others and so forth. They are not genuinely shocking, they are there as objects, the intent to shock in plain sight, which thwarts any opportunity to actually shock or move somebody. However, I may have come to this opinion due to the fact that I was reading a literary novel. Had I encountered the same in a newspaper, in a magazine or something similar, I may not have judged it so harshly; because this, really, is another point of reference for the Africa sections. It all reads rather like routine journalism, spruced up to fit a novel. This explains why it’s so disappointing yet at the same time rather decently written, decently structured, and so on.

The sprucing up also explains why so many ideas appear to be pasted onto the book. One of those ideas is a rather ineptly done metafictional element, with one of the characters writing a thinly disguised memoir with the title “Not Untrue and Not Unkind”, a book that Owen has less than kind words to say about. The infrequent essayistic remarks feel similarly out of place. One of the most memorable one of them is about the changes in journalistic practice which, Owen tells us, is more and more about rewriting, regurgitating the same babble over and over and not going into the field anymore. But, the reader may ask, if these morons in the field, dense as a log of wood, if we source our news from their reports, how is that better? It’s certainly not going to help with insights. Yet, at the same time, this exact question might be one of Not Untrue And Not Unkind‘s points. It is undeniable that there is one, only one, well-drawn character, and that’s Owen himself. His observations, his thoughts, his perceptions, they paint a vivid picture of a deeply unsympathetic person, one who is in a position to help shape public opinion on important issues but who appears to not be qualified to do this in a helpful and satisfying manner. If it was his intention to show this, he succeeded admirably.

It does not, however, make reading the book more of an enjoyable experience. It’s a point well made but the dullness of the whole book can be exhausting, as is the ham-handed way that Owen has with Africa, writing and other issues. At least it’s a light enough read. Maybe it’s a better book than I make it out to be, maybe I’m being misled by my disappointment. But really, even if all this sounds harsh, I’ve been holding back. Some of its portrayal of Africa is highly problematic and having Owen as a lens doesn’t protect the book at all times. If you trust me, don’t read it. It’s not worth your time or your money. Let’s hope it doesn’t get shortlisted.

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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