Hiding from the Holocaust

THIS IS NOT A REVIEW. IT’S A REACTION TO THE BOOK THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS BY JOHN BOYNE. IT CONTAINS BIG MASSIVE SPOILERS. REALLY BIG MASSIVE SPOILERS. THE ENDING OF THE BOOK, EVEN. IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS FOR THIS BOOK, YOU MUST LOOK AT THE SHOUTING TEXT AND GO AWAY. BIG. MASSIVE. SPOILERS.

So. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne was one of the big children’s books of the year for 2006. Or perhaps it wasn’t. it has a nine-year old boy named Bruno as protagonist, and is told almost entirely from his point of view – actually, that’s a lie. There’s an omniscient third person narrator who explains Bruno to the audience. This third person narrator is very clearly an adult. What’s not clear is who his listeners are.

Bruno is nine years old, and he lives in Berlin… until his father gets a new job which requires them all to leave and live in Out-With. Out-With is Bruno’s attempt to pronounce Auschwitz, and I daresay you know what this story might be dealing with. Bruno’s nine-year old persona allows other mispronunciations like “Fury” for Führer. The construction of the novel – a very short novel it is, too – tries to keep the facts of where Bruno is a secret from the child reader throughout the novel, and from the adult reader for a short amount of time. (Surprise is meant to be an integral part of the novel. The blurb tells you little more than that there is a fence, and that the book is not for nine-year olds.)

Well, there they all are, Bruno and his older sister and his mother and his father, in a house outside Auschwitz boundaries. Bruno explores – ho hum, a nine-year old boy who explores a lot – and meets a boy standing on the other side of the fence. Shmuel is the only boy Bruno’s age around – even if he’s on the wrong side. He wears striped pyjamas, a drab blue and grey. The two become friends.

Over the course of the novel Bruno discovers that the people on the other side of the fence are “not people”, according to his father. He learns to fear the way in which these non-people can be treated when they’re brought over to his home to perform menial labour. He learns to distrust young soldiers who treat these non-people badly. He learns that fear can make you betray your closest friends… blah blah.

It’s a learning book. I suspect the marketers expect that the child who reads the novel is expected to have a parent nearby who will say, Well Honey, there was this thing called the Holocaust…

I wonder how this book translates into German. What happens to the Out-With and the Fury.

Anyway. At some point, Bruno’s mother decides they can’t live next to hell anymore, and she and the children are set to move back to Berlin.

Bruno goes to say goodbye to Shmuel. A lot of the book has talked about Shmuel’s thinness, and worries about living in the camp – worries muted down so Bruno cannot recognise their severity – and now, today, Shmuel’s father is missing. Bruno wants one last adventure. He slips under the fence, into Out-With, into Auschwitz. He borrows a pair of striped pyjamas, to blend in, and he and Shmuel hunt for the missing father. (Missing absent and distant fathers are a theme of the text.)

And of course, they get herded into a gas chamber and they die.

When Bruno’s father finally figures out where his son has gone, he feels guilt and responsibility.

It’s a moving text. A lot more gripping than the blunt thing I have described here. And therein lies my problem.

The Holocaust is a big thing. Important, historically and even now. It carries a great deal of baggage. People make it their lives’ work to deny it happened, or find more and more proofs that it did.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is not about Shmuel. It’s not about the various Jewish people Bruno meets and feels sorry for, or feels friendly toward. It’s about Bruno. Who ignorantly and voluntarily puts on a pair of striped pyjamas and dies for it. Bruno’s tragedy. Bruno’s innocence.

Shmuel is, in many senses, Bruno’s narrative double. They are friends, they share the same birthday. They both search for Shmuel’s father (In this text that means something). They hold hands when they die. But the book closes on Bruno’s family’s grief at his death/disappearance.

Does the book make us feel the horror of the Holocaust by linking Bruno and Shmuel? Or does it simply push that aside by making us look at a random accidental victim? Is Bruno’s death meant to punish his soldier-father, who is in charge of Auschwitz? Take that, Nazi man, see how you feel when your son dies?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas doesn’t actively refer to the Holocaust in any way. It actively hides it, and to my mind, even negates it. I am sorrier for Bruno than I am for Shmuel.

This isn’t right. Is it?

One response to “Hiding from the Holocaust

  1. It isn’t wrong, either. It is a powerful narrative move. You cannot read it and not know what is going on in the background, and then what is not said hangs around.

    Says I, but I have not read it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s