A Review of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

Lincoln’s doctor’s dog. An archaic reference in the publishing industry to the notion that the way to ensure a book is a bestseller is to write about Lincoln, dogs, or doctors. This prompted one author to title his book which is about publishing in the 1930s Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.

– From www.metaphordogs.org

Maybe Lincoln, doctors and dogs have gone out of fashion; but children, the Holocaust and friendship are still the rage. So the sure-fire formula for creating a bestseller is to write a story about children’s friendship during the Holocaust…
…even if you don’t know the first thing about it.

***

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The entrance to Auschwitz (courtesy: The Jewish Virtual Library)

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is the heart-warming (read “emotionally manipulative”) story of the doomed friendship between two pre-teen boys, born on the same day (one Jew and one the son of a Nazi) and its inevitable tragic conclusion. Yes, that’s right: get your handkerchiefs here, folks.

When I review a book, I look at both the medium and the content. Sometimes, you will find a great story which is badly written: at other times, a story which is only so-so will be made palatable through great prose. Sometimes you have both, and the book becomes really enjoyable. And when the medium and the content are so aptly intertwined to be inseparable, you have a truly great book.

Very rarely, you have the misfortune to encounter a really abominable story which is abysmally written into the bargain – this happened to me with this book. The only good thing I can say about it is that it is a very fast read.

Now for the analysis.

The Background

This book is historical fiction (yes, yes, I know that the author has claimed it is a fable situated in the time of the Holocaust: but unfortunately, the Holocaust is history) yet it pays no heed to historical accuracy. Auschwitz, according to my knowledge, had no children – they were sent to gas chambers the moment they arrived. Yet here we have a camp which is literally crawling with kids, almost like a kindergarten.

We also have a German child Bruno, who despite being the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer who is very close to Hitler, does not know about Aryans, Jews and the concentration camps. Agreed, he may not be aware of the atrocities going on in those places: but in the real world, he would have been inducted into the fairy tales about Aryan supremacy and the “Jewish problem”. In the book, Bruno remains blissfully ignorant about all until the end. He almost seems mentally challenged.

Child_survivors_of_AuschwitzMy knowledge about Auschwitz comes from reading history books only, but as far as I know, the camps were guarded by electrified fences and patrolled heavily across the clock. It would not have been easy for somebody just to lift up the barbed wire and crawl in. And how was Schmuel (the Jewish boy) able to constantly evade the guards and come to the same spot at the fence where it was loose at the bottom? (Yeah, it’s a fable, I know: maybe the exigencies of plot also had to do with the historical manipulation?)

Characterisation

Bruno is easily one of the most annoying protagonists ever created. Naiveté one can understand – it is difficult to understand outright stupidity. The boy simply refuses to see what happens in front of his eyes. Even if he has not been indoctrinated (impossible, as mentioned earlier, in Nazi Germany), he would have picked up much more. Children do.

Most of the other characters are pasteboard, including Schmuel, the Jewish kid, put there as props to support the plot and move it along. They are all one-dimensional other than the servant Maria and the Jewish doctor-turned-waiter Pavel. But they serve only to fill the space around Bruno.

The Writing

I could have forgiven Mr. Boyne for all these historical blunders and failures in characterisation, had he written good prose. But that is the most terrible part of the book – the prose is puerile.

First, the repetition. Bruno’s mouth forms an “O” and his hands stretch out at his sides whenever he is surprised, which is quite often: ultimately I started picturing him as a cartoon stick figure I used to draw as a kid. We are told that his sister Gretel is a Hopeless Case every time she is mentioned. The same with Father’s office being Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions… I could go on and on.

As a teen, I used to watch Hollywood war movies in which all Germans spoke English. While I could understand that this gimmick was required to avoid subtitles, sometimes they spoke English with a German accent… maybe to highlight their “German-ness” … this I found ridiculous. I had the same feeling about the puns Boyne used in this novel (“Fury” for Fuhrer and “Out-with” for Auschwitz). I don’t even know whether they will work in German.

However, the biggest problem was the child’s POV. It’s just idiotic… an adult talking baby talk and trying to imitate a child. Once in a while, the adult pops out from behind the visage (“we are all in the same boat, and it’s leaking”). It’s just tiresome.

Selection_Birkenau_rampThe narrative was problematic. Half the time, I was not sure whether the author was writing an adult’s novel with a child’s viewpoint, or a mature novel for children – it fails on both counts. As I said before, the child’s POV does not work, and even with all the toned-down violence it’s not a suitable novel for children.

And plot holes… don’t get me talking about them! From the loose fence under which one can crawl through, the story jumps from hole to hole till it drops into the biggest hole of them all, the tragic finale. By that time, Boyne is pushing all the emotional buttons, trying to bring the tears on at full throttle… but the real tragedy here is the death of literature.

I understand that this book is a bestseller, and I can understand the reasons. I regret to say that this seems to me like adroit marketing of human tragedy… successful in this case.

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