Title: The Boy in Striped PajamasAuthor: John BoynePublisher: Definitions
Publishers of this book (made into a movie of the same title currently in select theaters) hope that reviewers won’t reveal the story’s ending. But be warned. I have. I choose not to participate with the “maintain suspense and lucrative reader interest” charade. You’ll understand why in a few paragraphs.
Readers are gripped by the captivating prose and unusual mystery of John Boyne’s “fable.” But midway through the story, historically aware readers wonder why the author used a “Forrest Gump” take on one of the largest crimes of humanity. The tale unfolds in the words of an inexplicably clueless child, within and immediately outside his house bordering Auschwitz.
Nine-year old Bruno narrates his life as the son of the commandant at Auschwitz. He surreptitiously befriends an inexplicably filthy, starving inmate his own age there - the boy in striped pajamas with whom Bruno chats (as if children had been allowed to remain alive at Auschwitz in the first place). Though he observes beatings and sees emaciated males of all ages behind a high fence topped with barbed wire for a year, Bruno inexplicably fails to realize that a death factory lies before him. He misinterprets grotesque scenes as he fantasizes about normal social activities within the camp.
Radio broadcasts, street posters and other overt efforts to demonize Jews back in Bruno’s native Berlin and then at Auschwitz never penetrate the child’s cognition. Even his “history” teacher, Mr. Liszt, with his pro-Germany and anti-”vermin” lessons doesn’t impress cruel reality upon this benign youngster. Neither does the fatal beating of the family’s waiter, a Jewish inmate, at dinnertime.
Bruno’s sister Gretel, three years his senior, finally confronts him with the genocidal truth, and still the child fails to comprehend gruesome facts. The sustained, jarring cluelessness lacks credibility.
Uncertain of the author’s goal in writing this book, I sense a social commentary effort regarding human prejudices and their consequent brutality. Boyne uses an “Indian in the Cupboard” effect to create the stunning end of his story when Bruno becomes a boy in striped pajamas himself upon entering Auschwitz for “adventure” and to search for his friend’s father. The outcome of Bruno’s decision, perhaps, is Boyne’s twofold moral commentary - that cruelty wipes out human potential: Kind-hearted Bruno, mistaken for a Jew, dies in his commandant father’s efficient death camp. And you can’t get away with (mass) murder; midah kneged midah - you get paid back in kind.
The Holocaust was one of the biggest crimes of humanity. The second biggest, perhaps, is that humanity has not improved since. Mass murder, genocide, and social indifference remain the stuff of headlines.
Humanity’s moral imperative for respect, tolerance and kindness is based on Divine Directive. Adolescent readers of The Boy in Striped Pajamas, Boyne’s target market, will likely fail to realize this unspecified point.