Monday, September 20, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

John Boyne
David Fickling Books, 2006, 216 pp., $8.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-75153-7

In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a novel by John Boyne, a young German boy named Bruno learns that his father, an officer in the military, has been promoted by the Fury, which means that he and his family must leave their home in Berlin and move to a far off place. For Bruno, the news is devastating, as it means leaving his friends behind. He consequently arrives at his new home, which he mistakenly believes is pronounced "Off-With", with feelings of deep regret.

Though German soldiers, including a particularly cold young lieutenant, visit Off-With on a regular basis, Bruno is disappointed to discover that he has no playmates. One afternoon, while looking out his bedroom window, he spies a fence in the distance, on the other side of which people of all ages huddle together in small groups wearing what Bruno assumes are striped pajamas. Unable to make sense of this strange scene, he turns to his older sister for clarification, but though he presses her for an explanation, she is unable to provide one other than to tell him that the people are Jews. Though his parents expressly forbid him to leave the yard, Bruno can't resist the urge to do a bit of exploring, and, while walking along the fence one afternoon, he happens to meet one of the strangers behind the fence: a boy named Shmuel. When the two discover that they are the same age, and share the same birthday, they become fast friends, and over the course of the next several weeks they secretly meet at the fence to talk. Shmuel grasps the complexity of their situation in a way that the more innocent Bruno does not, and he gently rebuffs his friend when he naively offers to climb under a weak point in the fence and play on the other side. Yet when Shmuel's father fails to return from a work detail one afternoon, he accepts Bruno's invitation to help search for him, setting in motion a series of events that build to a heartbreaking conclusion.

According to the title page, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a "fable", the result of which offers a clue as to how Boyne intended it to be read. Like most fables, it is told from the third-person viewpoint, the result of which creates an immediate sense of distance between the characters and the reader. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Bruno's innocence compromises his reliability as a focalizer: we realize that he confuses "Fuhrer" for "Fury", "Auschwitz" for "Off-With", and prison uniforms for striped pajamas. Recognizing that he can't be trusted to adequately interpret the situation he faces, we take it upon ourselves to do so for him. Indeed, much of the horror we experience as we read the novel is a result of the knowledge we bring to it, both of the Holocaust and of the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated during World War II. To his credit, Boyne is a savvy enough writer to know that he doesn't have to depict unspeakable acts of violence or cruelty, a problem that inevitably confronts those who write about a subject as inconceivable as the Holocaust. Rather, he holds readers accountable for bridging gaps that he intentionally leaves in the narrative. As a result, the narrator does not have to tell us what Bruno sees when he observes a Nazi officer assaulting an ailing elderly man. Instead, Boyne challenges us to construct the scene for ourselves, the result of which heightens the novel's emotional impact.

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