Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The
Berlin 1942When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.
Reviewed: 2016-06-24I've had this book on my To-Read list for a long time, since I really enjoy reading books of this kind. I haven't seen the movie, and I really had no idea what to expect from this one. That being said, I wish I could have liked it more than I did.
This story is told in 3rd person limited, from the perspective of a 9 year old boy. Bruno, our main character, is moved unexpectedly from his large home with 5 floors (if you count the basement and the little room with the high window at the top) in Berlin to Out-With, where the house is only 3 floors (if you count the basement) where he's bored, has no friends, nowhere to explore, and nothing to do except look at the people behind the fence wearing the striped pajamas.
Bruno doesn't know who the people behind the fence are, or why they are there, or... well, anything. And it just wasn't believable to me that he should be so obliviously naive, which is one of the major issues that I had with this book, and a big part of why I found it so disappointing in the end.
I have a few reasons for not believing in Bruno's "innocence". First, Bruno was born in Berlin in 1934, well into the Nazi party's regime. I cannot find it in myself to believe that Bruno could have lived 9 years in this environment of anti-Semitism and have never even heard of a Jew before. This kid went to public school, and hung around other boys both his age and older. Bruno's own father is in the Nazi military, had "The Fury" to his house for dinner, and was personally given orders by "The Fury". I don't believe that the term "Jew" was never, not once, used in Bruno's presence, by someone at school, or on the street (which is so busy that you could be pushed from pillar to post, specifically), or in his own household.
People who hate, especially in an environment where that hatred is not only tolerated but encouraged and treated as "right", generally hate vociferously. It's not something we're born with, it's something we must be taught. That's how racism works. So it doesn't make sense to me that someone who obviously believes that Jews are inferior, who feels that Germans have been wronged by the Jews, who feels that Jews should be punished, and that those who disagree are cowards at best and traitors at worst, as Bruno's father clearly seems to believe, would fail to delineate the "us" from the "them" to his son.
And Bruno is not stupid, though he is rather self-centered, and sees everything around him in terms of his own life experiences. But he notices things, even if he doesn't understand them or their significance. And we see in the course of the story that when he's curious enough about something, he'll ask for information about it, even if he doesn't really learn the right info, since usually his equally self-centered and ignorant sister is providing the answers. But still, it just doesn't work for me that he should be portrayed as such an innocent blank slate.
I grew up in an area where racism was very common, but thankfully my mom taught me differently - and started doing so early, by which I mean around the time I could talk. Very young children mimic, and at some point every child will have heard something they shouldn't have and then repeated it. It's inevitable. Young children also ask a bajillion embarrassing questions. "Mommy, why is that lady's skin so dark?" "Mommy, why is that man so fat?" "Mommy, why does that man get a yellow star? I want a star!" Just ask Louis CK about the Why Game. I don't have kids, but even I know that it's never ending. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Over and over and over...
Any of these kinds of things would have been perfect times for Nazi Dad to say, "Well, little Bruno, that man gets a star because he's a Jew, and we're rounding him, his family, and everyone like him up so that we can cleanse the earth of their filth." But he didn't, apparently, which begs the question: Why not? Nazis were in power, and they even had programs specifically designed for indoctrinating kids. But little Bruno was kept ignorant of the attitudes of the period. Because if he hadn't been, then this story wouldn't be possible: Bruno wouldn't have been that innocent, naive, oblivious blank slate he had to be. And that's a huge plot hole for me, and a big disappointment.
Moving along to the writing itself, I have to say that, again, it was something of a disappointment. Well, the writing wasn't terrible, but some of the techniques used within it were irritating as hell. Like this line: "The rope was easy enough to find as there were bales of it in the basement of the house and it didn't take long to do something extremely dangerous and find a sharp knife and cut as many lengths of it as he thought he might need."
First, why does the narrator feel the need to specify that knives are dangerous? Because Bruno is 9? Secondly, not only is it a run-on sentence, but what exactly is "extremely dangerous"? Finding the sharp knife, or using it? Third, why even mention the tool used at all? Why not just say "The rope was easy enough to find as there were bales of it in the basement of the house and it didn't take long to cut as many lengths of it as he thought he might need." It feels very much as if the narrator was talking down to the reader, and trying to protect them perhaps? I'm not a huge fan of that. Let readers think for themselves.
Another two examples of this protection thing:
1) The narrator has a bad habit of editing out the terms the Nazis used to describe Jews. "'Hey, you!' he shouted, then adding a word that Bruno did not understand. 'Come over here, you--' He said the word again, and something about the harsh sound of it made Bruno look away and feel ashamed to be part of this at all."
Bruno may not know the term, but why edit it? Let's look at Harry Potter for a second. When Hermione is first called a Mudblood by Draco Malfoy, it's not edited out, despite Harry not knowing the term. Instead, he picks up from context that it's derogatory and ugly, and we, as the reader, do the same. That's the proper way to communicate to readers, and to trust them to understand and be shocked by the term and its intent.
2) The narrator cuts away from anything resembling violent action. In a scene where a Jewish waiter spills wine on a Nazi soldier, we're treated to this: "What happened then was both unexpected and extremely unpleasant. [Nazi] grew very angry with [Jew] and no one [...] stepped in to stop him doing what he did next, even though none of them could watch."
I edited out names, but regarding the action in that scene, that's it. Of course, we can imagine what happened. Of course, we know how brutal Nazis, and people in general, can be. But then at the end of the story, we're left with these lines: "Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age."
Nice. Some reverse psychology there. Tell us nothing like that could happen now, because we're all so tolerant and peaceful. The object is that we start questioning whether it could happen, or even whether it could be happening now. Subtle. Except again it's a fail, because we learn nothing at all from this book. What's the point? "Pay attention"? To what? If Boyne is not even willing to call out the behavior we're supposed to think is so bad, not willing to show people how needlessly cruel and brutal and inhumanly awful people have been to others, what the hell is stopping us from being way that now? We wouldn't recognize it if we saw it. We don't learn anything by promoting ignorance and whitewashing the past.
Bruno may not have understood what was happening around him, but a skilled writer takes that character's lack of understanding and shows the reader the truth. Boyne tried his hand at this, and succeeded in a small way, in that the reader understood more of what the Jews were going through than Bruno did, but too much was avoided in the guise of protecting the reader, and overall, it failed. Bruno never learned anything. He never grew as a character. He was as self-centered at the end as he was in the beginning. Disappointing.
This book could have been so amazingly powerful by showing the true horror of Auschwitz through the eyes of a child. But it didn't. It shied away from everything that would have meant something. And that's the biggest disappointment of all.
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