There are some books that simply seize you, and the echoes of the words linger with you long after you have turned the last page; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is one such book. The very first time I read it, it left me with a lump in my throat for days, and every time I thought back to it I had to take several deep breaths to steady myself. If I were to describe the story, I would call it deceptively innocent, lulling you into a false sense of security before dealing you a hammer blow from which you take ages to recover.
The book is broadly classified as Holocaust Fiction, and has created its fair share of controversy. Told from the point of view of a 9-year-old German boy who befriends a Jewish child prisoner of the same age at Auschwitz, it presents a rather simplified world view which at times seems out of place with the gravity of the subject and the era it is placed in. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has called it “historically inaccurate” and has advised anyone studying or teaching about the Holocaust to avoid it. Others, like Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a prominent Talmudic scholar writer, have called it a fairytale that damages and belittles the experiences of the Holocaust survivors. Yet others have praised it as a cautionary tale, a moralistic fable, and a well-deserved addition to children’s literature.
For me, the very fact that that the storytelling style is so simple makes it so impactful. It is one of those instances where the severity of the situation does not need to be conveyed in the same tone, leaving it up to the reader to create his own interpretation. We are shown the world through the eyes of a child, and I believe the author has done a remarkable job of doing that. That is also the reason why the tone of the book is simplistic and the seriousness of being in the middle of WWII and at Auschwitz is muted – because that is precisely how it would appear to a 9-year-old. Thus, we have Auschwitz referred to as Out-With (as the child cannot yet pronounce the name correctly) and the Fuhrer being called the Fury (which also serves as an intended pun by the author). We have the child’s world revolving around his “three best friends for life” in Berlin, and the biggest worry of his life is whether he will get to meet them after he moves to Out-With and if there will be anyone else there to play with. The combination of innocence and ignorance that a child would have, specially a child growing up in a privileged house at a time when Hitler was ascendant, has been beautifully balanced by Boyne.
The book begins with young Bruno’s father being named commandant of Out-With, and the reactions of the family upon being told they would have to move out of their spacious house in Berlin to go and live there instead. Boyne gives us an accurate depiction of a German household in the 1930s, where the father was the Man of the House and the Provider, while the mother was an instrument of his will, and the children were merely supposed to be seen and not heard (all of which was one of the return to traditionalisms advocated by the Nazis). Once they arrive at the Commandant’s house in Out-With, Bruno’s curiosity is piqued by the people he can see from his bedroom window, the ones who are behind a tall fence and all of whom seem to be wearing similar striped pyjamas. Since no one seems to want to tell him anything about it, the boy with a lot of time on his hands (who has decided he wants to grow up and become an explorer) decides to try and unravel the mystery by himself.
In the course of his “explorations” he happens to come across a section of the fenced area that isn’t monitored as closely, and meets Shmuel. The boys immediately take to each other as they find they share birthdays and are exactly the same age, and in spite of the fact that there is a fence separating them. This quickly becomes their secret meeting place every day, and the son of the Commandant and the Jewish child prisoner find they have a lot in common with each other, in a manner that Boyne describes mockingly (mocking the Nazis) as “it’s almost as if they were the same”.
At the same time, there are events happening around Bruno that he struggles to accept and understand. Events such as Lieutenant Kotler, his father’s adjutant, abusing and even hitting an old man who is given Kitchen Duty at their house. Bruno does notice he wears the same striped pyjamas as Shmuel, but struggles to understand and feels embarrassed (although he can’t explain why) as to why would that enable Kotler in his shiny black uniform to treat him the way he does. Events such as his elder sister growing out of her dolls phase and getting infatuated with National Socialism, and trying to explain to him (ineffectually) why the people behind the fences have been placed there and why people like father are placing them there. Among all this, he keeps meeting with Shmuel and their friendship deepens with each passing day, with them sharing stories of their lives, the places they come from, what they like or don’t.
Things continue in this fashion for over a year, when finally, Bruno’s mother prevails over his father and he agrees to let the three of them return to Berlin, since “Out-With is no place to bring up children”. Bruno, by now having completely forgotten his pals in Berlin as he now has a new “best friend for life”, doesn’t take the news well. When he informs Shmuel of his departure, however, his news is over-shadowed by Shmuel’s – his father is missing since a couple of days. Bruno’s decision here, and the events that unfold as a result, provide the hard-hitting finale of the book, and makes the title’s duality clear for the reader.
In the first reading, the book may come across as shallow, even deliberately so, for readers well versed with Holocaust history and all it entails. But as you continue, the world of Bruno overcomes any other feelings you may have, and you are looking at it the way he does too; that is the effect Boyne strives for and succeeds in creating. While you are turning the pages, you are a 9-year-old yourself, looking out at once with crystal clarity and smudged ambiguity and making your own world of it.
Pick up the book if you haven’t yet, and let me know your thoughts on it. And let me warn you beforehand, it is not for the faint of heart.