Review “The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

Bruno is a quiet, but intelligent and adventurous 9 year old living in the centre of a bustling and crowded Berlin during the early years of the Second World War. He lives with his well-to-do family in a rambling house, with many rooms and servants and is happy and contented with his lot.

However the book opens with Bruno, his horrid sister Gretal, the “Hopeless Case” as he describes her, Marie their maid, and his parents preparing to leave for the mysterious “Out-With”. Bruno’s father a highly placed Nazi official has been posted their as Kommandant by no less a person than the Fuhrer, described by Bruno as the “Fury”, himself.

Bruno can tell that the uncharacteristically sympathetic connection from the maid and the very reticent and distant behaviour by his glamorous mother suggests that not everyone his happy about this posting, apart from his father who is officious and self-important throughout the story.

From the outset Bruno notices a certain strangeness about “Out-With”. The large impersonal house allocated to them, is isolated in its own grounds. There are no neighbours, and its unsettling in its solitude. Unlike the bustling nature of the Berlin that Bruno has left behind. The house’s interior is cold and dirty with no trace human warmth or previous habitation.

Apart from the family and maid the only other person Bruno sees at first is the cold and unfriendly Lieutenant Kotler who he sees skulking around the house. On inspecting his bedroom Bruno looks out of his sloping window. Standing on tip toes he sees there are neighbours. In a compound at the back of the garden, separated by a wire fence are hundreds of dirty and under nourished men and boys wearing identical ill fitting uniforms which Bruno describes as stripped pyjamas.

Eventually we get introduced to more characters such as Herr Liszt, an elderly pedagogue who tutors the children privately, Pavel the waiter from the other side of the fence, silence, frail and cowed, who we learn much more about as the story progresses. Lieutenant Kotler turns out to be a braggart and sadistic bully who first with Gretal who acts in an embarrassing way.

Bruno is not convinced by the pretence of normality among the adults and asks awkward questions of the adults and tries to engage his sister into trying to work out what the oppressive place is all about. Unfortunately for Bruno there is a conspiracy of silence and avoidance from the adults but this does not deter Bruno from trying to find out what is happening on the other side of the fence.

Boyne is meticulous in describing the world of a slightly odd and solitary boy. He is intelligent and sensitive but the limits of his imagination act as a metaphor for the unconscious avoidance of knowing the truth and this is a reoccurring them throughout the story. Boyne also creates subtle relationships between the characters, with only hints of events and large gaps of knowledge seen from Bruno’s point of view.

The introduction of Shmuel into the story, the boy in stripped pyjamas himself only adds to the opaqueness of Bruno’s world. Bruno meets Shmuel on a day he decides to explore the perimeter fence and sees this tiny boy in an odd uniform sitting crossed legged and alone. This is where there story does start to reach the level of fable as it would have been unlikely that a concentrate inmate would have een allowed out of sight of the guards for long. It is a device used to described the odd friendship between the two boys and add a universalistic element to the story, deliberately drawing on commonality between them such as being the same age and sharing the same birthday.

The strength of Boyne’s fable relies on the somewhat contrived subtleties of the relationship Bruno has with the other characters. Even the oblique references to violence and death are hidden from Bruno, who is a brilliantly drawn as someone who wants to know but doesn’t want to know at the same time. Stylistically then the story is a triumph. Conceptually its ending, which is predictable, borders on cliché.

As a book about the Holocaust which is currently being taught on the GCSE syllabus in the school I am teaching in, I do not find it particularly satisfactory. The universalist message obscures the particularity of the Holocaust, or Shoah, itself and anti-Semitism among Germans and Europeans at the time. There are several characters introduced to whitewash, German attitudes, but in the long run it is the complicity of avoidance and silence which is the main theme. As a work of fiction these dives work very well.