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John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a familiar surprise; a nightmare painted beautiful.
Countless books, plays, movies and essays have been written about World War II. Yet, reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was like experiencing its horrors for the first time.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is told from the tender-hearted perspective of Bruno, a nine-year-old German boy, the son of a German Commandant put in charge of a concentration camp in Auschwitz during the war. Bruno is slightly too young to understand what exactly is going on– his innocence and confusion is the space Boyne plays with, in which he layers profound commentary about the dehumanisation and senselessness of that period. A nine-year-old’s perspective both amplifies and softens the horrific reality that surrounds him.
Overall, the story is a simple one. It is a story probably somewhat replicated in many families across Germany during that period: Bruno’s father gets demoted by “the Fury” (the Führer) and as a punishment, gets sent to “Out-With” (Auschwitz) where they have to stay in an isolated house along the fringes of a concentration camp. All of a sudden, Bruno is uprooted– he can’t stay in his big, beautiful house in Berlin and can’t play on the same street as his three best friends in the world anymore. Bruno’s grandmother is ashamed of her son; his grandfather proud.
In the new house, Bruno is unhappy. It is ugly and in the middle of nowhere. There is a rude Lieutenant who walks in and out of the house as if he owns it and flirts with his (lonely) mother and his too-young sister. There is the waiter who can’t even look at them properly, gets abused and seems to be starving to death on his feet. Worst of all, Bruno can see many families, children especially, all wearing the same grey-striped pyjamas and all behind the tall wire fence outside his window, and he can’t play with any of them. In fact, he is told not to take notice of them: they’re not even people.
Bruno tries everything he can to make the best of the situation. He makes a swing in the garden, but falls, and although the waiter helped clean his cut, they mustn’t tell Father, they must pretend Mother helped him. He tries talking to his sister, who is too busy flirting with the lieutenant who hurt the nice waiter and shot the dog who was barking behind the fence. He tries talking to his father, who has neither the time nor the patience to listen to his son.
So one day, Bruno decides to go on an adventure. It’s a simple, nine-year-old boy plan: dress in an adventurer’s garb, and walk along the fence in the hopes that he will discover something. After all, there is nothing to do at home, anyway. Maybe he’ll find something outside.
After walking for about an hour, Bruno finds a skinny boy in striped pyjamas sitting in the dirt behind the fence. His name is Shmuel, a Jew from Poland. Thankfully, at Out-With, Shmuel has to learn German, so they are able to communicate with each other. They introduce themselves and make fast friends. They are not only around the same size physically, they are born on exactly the same birthday! They’re pretty much the same then, they conclude, with the simplicity of a child’s logic. Glad he finally has a friend, Bruno makes this walk everyday, sneaking Shmuel some bread and crackers most days, talking till they become best friends.
There is so much that can be said about this story– the metafictional use of the plays Bruno’s grandmother puts on (puppets and costumes), the family’s dynamic, the parallels between the Father and the Führer. For such a short and simple tale, Boyne’s text is rich with commentary on the war and its impact on humanity. For my critique, I will be deconstructing the meaning of the war and of Auschwitz, or the inherent lack of it, via two ways: from the writing of Bruno’s perspective (bottom-up), and from the top-down– their impact not only on Bruno, but on life itself.
Bottom-up: Inherent Senselessness
Bruno’s innocence and lack of knowledge offers Boyne the space in which to layer profound commentary. As the story takes place over the course of a few months, Bruno doesn’t get to grow up in it. He stays nine years old, and his perception of things mostly stays stubbornly uncomprehending throughout the book. He can’t even pronounce most things properly.
Auschwitz is “Out-With” to him. On the one hand, “Auschwitz” is a difficult word for a child to pronounce. On the other, “out-with” sounds like “out with you”, mirroring how the Jews were ousted– from their homes, from Europe, from humanity itself. As Father says, “they’re not people at all, Bruno.”
The Führer is “the Fury” to him. Bruno’s inability to perform linguistic acrobatics allows Boyne to do three things. First, he turns Hitler into a joke. His title the Führer, which was meant to instil fear and respect, is so easily mispronounced and therefore butchered. Second, “Fury” conveys the anger Boyne himself, as well as readers, feel towards the whole business that is genocide and war. Third, Boyne points out that meaning is intrinsically arbitrary. With a child’s unintentional slip of the tongue, “the Führer”, a title impregnated with connotations of fear, respect, hatred, genocide, is replaced and its meaning lost. Hitler’s title, as well as all other signposts, only carry the weight and meaning that they do because we allocate it to them. Definition is decentered; meaning is constantly deferred. Boyne points out that like “the Fury”, the Father of the genocide, the genocide itself is inherently senseless, illogical.
Bruno does grows up ever so slightly throughout the course of the novel: he comes to understand that he mustn’t tell his family about his friendship with Shmuel and that some humans get unfairly treated as less-than. However, due to how short the timespan of the novel is, his maturity is limited. He never understands why the waiter, who claims to actually be a doctor, is a waiter, and why the adults are allowed to treat him so badly. He never fully comprehends Shmuel’s situation, and with Shumel, being the same age, is unable to properly explain what all the people in the striped pyjamas are doing on his side of the fence. Bruno gets fed up that Shmuel has so many other children to play with (even though Shmuel tries to explain that they don’t play) and that the people on the other side of the fence get to wear striped pyjamas and stay barefoot all day long while he has to wear uncomfortable shoes and clothes.
At the end of the novel, Bruno and Shmuel hatch a plan to find Shmuel’s father who has gone missing. Coincidentally, Bruno has recently shaved his head due to lice. He meets Shmuel at the fence which just so happens to be unsecured where they meet daily, changes into striped pyjamas Shmuel has stolen for him, and sneaks underneath the fence. He not only gets to help his best friend, he finally, finally gets to see for himself the village on the other side of the fence. The following events happen in quick succession: they accidentally get caught up in a death march and get ushered into an airtight container. Even as the hatch closes, Bruno does not understand what has happened. He is just glad he is with his best friend for life, even as his life reaches its abrupt end.
There are so many heartbreaking, open-ended questions here: If Bruno and Shmuel can look so similar with just a change of clothes, then why stage a giant war centred around killing Shmuel’s race and glorifying Bruno’s? If Bruno puts on Jews’ clothing, does it automatically dehumanise him even if he is the Commandant’s son? Bruno’s life immediately loses all its value the moment he crosses the fence. He becomes “not people at all.”
By constructing Auschwitz through a child’s eyes, Boyne shows the hollowness of its meaning. If we don’t read between the lines, and just take what’s on paper as the text’s whole meaning, the text never reaches a conclusion. There would never be a way to understand what is happening. There are too many confusing gaps. And that’s the point. Unless we attach extrinsic meaning, unless we weave our own stories around the thing (the thing= Auschwitz; the text), the thing itself is inherently senseless. There is no way to make sense of the genocide and dehumanisation of an entire people group. There is simply no way to make sense of a hatred so deep, a violent so incomprehensible. So we the readers, the distant observers of Auschwitz, create stories, trying to attach meaning, to understand, to domesticate an essentially untameable beast.
From the top-down: Mythical Predator
According to Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Literature Like A Professor, one of the “patterns” in literature he highlights is that of vampirism. Foster writes that the vampire is a pattern, or a theme, in literature that is anything– but mostly an older, traditionally male presence– that sucks the life force out of a younger presence. He highlights in particular, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where an older male figure feeds and preys on younger women who are full of vitality. “Vampire” doesn’t mean Dracula, per se, but rather what Dracula embodies: greed, the lust for power and cruelty. I will be using this reading as the scaffolding for this section of my interpretation.
Through this lens, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas‘ specific tragedy is that of the war and genocide ultimately draining Bruno, who stands in for youth and humanity, of life. At the start, the war begins by taking material things from him: his three best friends, his beautiful house, his town, his grandparents. As the story proceeds, the war relentlessly takes more of what signify “life” to him: the presence and glorified image of his Father, the meaning of humanity, and of life itself.
The war, the Fury and Out-With, are ever-present entities always beyond the grasp of Bruno’s comprehension. Like mythical predators, they hover in the shadows. Such things are horrors no one wants to think about. Auschwitz represents the worst nightmares of humanity come to pass– the id we suppress and ignore given free reign, a voice and a face. It sucks the life out of Bruno until in the end, it literally kills him. Then, the war, like a callous vampire, having drained its young victim, continues on its unfeeling way, in search of its next victims to feed on.
We call it “genocide”, “war”, “murder”, “racism”. Yet, what are these labels but our feeble attempts at packaging something so entirely out of reach, in a digestible way? If there were a distillation Boyne’s commentary in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, (which there isn’t), it is this: that there is no way to fully comprehend what happened in Auschwitz. There is no way to tell its story in a way that gives it order. That gives it sense. So instead, Boyne tells a more familiar story: one of a boy, a family, and a friendship.
I unintentionally began reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on Memorial Day. It is fitting to remember that some horrors are too monstrous to put into words. In fact, the word “Auschwitz” itself never appears in the text– It doesn’t have to. It is fitting to remember the destruction that can be wrecked when we forgo humanity, when we forget what it means to be human.
But it is comforting, too, to remember that even in the worst places and situations on earth (along a barbed-wire fence in Auschwitz, for instance) there can be found friendship. There can be found solace.