Saturday 20 June 2015
#CBR7 Book 61: "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" by John Boyne
Rating: 2 stars
Nine-year-old Bruno lives in a big house in Berlin and is not at all happy when the household is packed up and he, his mother, his older sister and the servants are forced to travel by train to a new house, far away in the desolate countryside. He misses the bustling city, the house with such a great banister for sliding down, his grandparents, his friends, even his school. At the new house, there is no one to play with, just a small garden and a tall fence in the distance, reaching as far as the eye can see. He tries to convince his parents that they need to move back, but is hopeful that his new exile will only last for maybe a month.
Of course, Bruno is wrong, and he is forced to settle into his new home. His busy father has uniformed soldiers coming in and out of his office all the time, and doesn't really have time for his wife or children any more. Going off on his own to explore the countryside, Bruno walks along the tall barbed wire fence and one day meets a skinny boy, dressed in what appears to be striped pyjamas. The boy's name is Shmuel and Bruno discovers that he too is nine years old. Not only that, they share the same birthday. Bruno doesn't tell his family about his new friend and keeps sneaking back to the fence to talk to his new friend, who seems strangely reluctant to tell Bruno too much of the details of his life. As the boys' friendship develops, Bruno becomes more and more curious about Shmuel's life behind the fence. When he decides to crawl under a loose section of the fence, it has unexpected consequences.
I'm unsure of who the intended target audience for the book is. Because it's written from the POV of a naive and sheltered child, it may seem like a children's book. But because of the subtle ways in which the story is told, you need knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust to really understand what is going on. A child wouldn't understand that "The Fury" is Hitler and "Out With is in fact, Auschwitz-Birkenau, probably the most infamous and well-known of all of the Nazi's death camps. Apparently, the author wrote the first draft of the book in about two and a half days, and intends it as a "fable" about the war. Which may describe why the story seems a bit too simplistic.
I was also expecting that a book at least tangentially about the Holocaust would affect me more emotionally, but this book really didn't make me feel much of anything, except perhaps bafflement that at nine, Bruno can be so sheltered and naive, and unwilling to question his surroundings. In one review I saw of the book, the reviewer suggested that a lot of Bruno's character traits would be more believable in a younger boy, perhaps around 6. That a nine-year-old whose father is a Commandant in the Nazi army is unable to pronounce "Der Führer" correctly, seems unlikely. Since the family aren't moved to Poland until 1943, I find it very doubtful that Bruno, in his school in Berlin, hasn't been taught about the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of the Jewish race. That he doesn't know about death camps is fair, but I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't know anything about the Jews as a people and a deeply hated race.
It's not a very long book, but neither Bruno (despite the fact that we see the story through his eyes) nor any of the other characters are particularly well defined. Bruno seems rather spoiled and very oblivious. His sister is only 12, but spends much of her time attempting to flirt with some of the officers working for her father. This made me deeply uncomfortable. Bruno's parents are pretty much non-entities, although it's suggested that Bruno's mother has a drinking problem and possibly has an affair with one of the same young officers that her pre-teen daughter is trying to flirt with. Shmuel is the person who interacts the most with Bruno, but he doesn't make much of an impression either. I also question how he's able to sneak away from his work duties all the time to sit by a fence (which should surely be much more heavily guarded than it is in this book) to chat with Bruno.
The ending seems inevitable from fairly early on, and was probably supposed to affect me. I would feel like a bad person for not being moved, but the characters were too simply drawn and the whole scenario just seemed implausible to me. I know the book was made into a film in 2008, and from the plot summary, it seems that the plot has possibly been made more complex and plausible - Bruno certainly doesn't seem completely unaware of what a Jew is. Based on the book, I doubt I'd be all that interested in seeing the film either, though.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.