The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: elegant storytelling with emotional impact.
Irish writer John Boyne's fourth novel is the first he has written for children. It's a touching tale of an odd friendship between two boys in horrendous circumstances and a reminder of man's capacity for inhumanity.
Bruno is a nine-year-old boy growing up in Berlin during World War II. He lives in a five-storey house with servants, his mother and father and 12-year-old sister, Gretel. His father wears a fancy uniform and they have just been visited by a very important personage called the Fury, a pun which adult readers should have no trouble deciphering. As a consequence of this visit, Bruno's father gets a new uniform, his title changes to Commandment and, to Bruno's chagrin, they find themselves moving to a new home at a place called Out-With.
When Bruno gets there he is immediately homesick. He has left his school, his three best friends, his house, his grandparents and the bustling street life of urban Berlin with its cafes, fruit and veg stalls, and Saturday jostle. His new home is smaller, full of soldiers and there is no one to play with. From his bedroom window, however, he notices a town of people dressed in striped pyjamas separated from him by a wire fence. When he asks his father who those people are, he responds that they aren't really people.
Bruno is forbidden to explore but boredom, isolation and sheer curiosity become too much for him. One day, he follows the wire fence cordoning off the area where these people live from his house. He spots a dot in the distance on the other side of the fence and as he gets closer, he sees it's a boy. Excited by the prospect of a friend, Bruno introduces himself. The Jewish boy's name is Shmuel. Almost every day, they meet at the same spot and talk. Eventually, for a variety of reasons, Bruno decides to climb under the fence and explore Shmuel's world.
After some initial tonal clunkiness where you can almost detect the author thinking "how do I write a child", the story is an effortless read that puts you directly into Bruno's worldview. It is elegant story-telling with emotional impact and an ending that in true fairytale style is grotesquely clever.
Bruno's friendship with Shmuel is rendered with neat awareness of the paradoxes between children's naive egocentricity, their innate concept of fairness, familial loyalty and obliviousness to the social conventions of discrimination. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is subtitled A Fable and, as in other modern fables such as Antoine de St Exupery's The Little Prince, Boyne uses Bruno to reveal the flaws in an adult world.
For me, as an adult reader, however, the fact that this fable is set in living history - the Holocaust - did, at times, jar. I couldn't help comparing it to the immediacy and complexity of Primo Levi's If This is a Man, or, to stick with children, The Diary of Anne Frank. From a perspective of German complicity in the Holocaust, books such as
Christa Wolf's superb A Model Childhood provide images of what it was like to have had a Nazi childhood, making this tale seem rather implausible.
Given his father's rank, it's highly likely Bruno would have been a brainwashed acolyte of the Hitler Youth. Perhaps fables are best when, like the The Little Prince with its asteroid settings, they are insulated by either time or imagination from actual history.
Still, these are adult quibbles about a children's book and probably unfair because of it, even if there is a sense this novel has ambitions to follow in the steps of The Little Prince (or Harry Potter, for that matter) and become one of those children's novels that adults read.
None of the scruples above should affect the reading pleasure of the book's primary audience. I wanted to test-drive The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas book with a nine-year-old but none could be bribed into reading it within the necessary timeframe for this review. Nevertheless, at the risk of using intuition instead of market research, I envisage children will identify with and be moved by this story, just as I was by books such as Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword at a similar age.
Be prepared, however. In its allusiveness, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas will provoke questions about the abhorrent conditions in which it is set and you may well find yourself needing to explain the Holocaust.
implausible - having a quality that provokes disbelief; "gave the teacher an implausible excuse"
1. implausible - having a quality that provokes disbelief; "gave the teacher an implausible excuse"
incredible, unbelievable - beyond belief or understanding; "at incredible speed"; "the book's plot is simply incredible"
plausible - apparently reasonable and valid, and truthful; "a plausible excuse"
2. implausible - highly imaginative but unlikely; "a farfetched excuse"; "an implausible explanation"