What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pyjamas and which people wore the uniforms?
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne came to me with rave reviews. I had wanted to read it for long (like with most books) and I managed it only now, in the lockdown when I can focus more and have some time if my daughter lets me. I never read the reviews that came along with the book for the fear of spoiling my experience and clouding my judgment and I couldn’t have been more right about my decision.
The story of two boys, this book is told from the point of view of the son of a Nazi who gets direct order form the “Fury”, as the boy calls him, to go and work at a place called Out-With, and how the two boys form an unlikely friendship from the two sides of the fence.
When his father moves their family to the house in Out-With one day, Bruno, all of 9 years old, suddenly finds his life taking a turn for the worse. Leaving behind his grandparents and three best friends for life in Berlin, he is saddened by the desolate area in which their new house stands in Out-With. With his Hopeless Case sister Gretel, Bruno finds himself looking for things to engage himself with but with barely any success. It is then that he finally decides to go exploring around the house. Walking around, he ventures towards the fences that he could see from his bedroom window and wonders if he would be able to see the people in the striped pyjamas. He does see a person in a striped pyjama, a boy of his age, sharing his own birthdate coincidently. In an unlikely turn of events, Bruno finds himself torn between wanting to talk to the boy on the other side of the fence, the skinny and grey-skinned Schmuel, and his desire to return to his home in Berlin. As his father sees less and less of him, Bruno finds himself gradually adjusting to his new life and friendship with Schmuel, each opening about his life to the other, until one day he is told that they are to return to Berlin. With one final meeting, Bruno embarks on a journey with Schmuel, holding his hand, into his world and finds that no one can separate them now, ever.
Oh, what a book, what a book! Never in my life have I read such a devastatingly beautiful story. Beautiful because it shows what human emotions are capable of, and devastating because it is based on true facts. I had to turn to my online group for support after its completion, to ask for help in dealing with the effect it had on me. And I found that most of them were still dealing themselves, saddened and disturbed and speechless at the same time. This book has such power.
Narrated in the third person, the story is short and told in simple, lucid, and childish language. Since the POV is that of a 9-year-old, there are repetitions and explanations that seem naive. Barring this, which I consider was necessary for the story to sound convincingly told from a 9-year-old, yet of which I am not too fond of, there are a few other things that I must point out before proceeding. Firstly, the entitlement of Bruno is way higher than it is let on, his character overshadows Schmuel more vocally than it should. He was ignorant, and as his sister kept saying, an idiot and a stupid. Secondly, although I understand that this book isn’t entirely about the Holocaust but a fictional tale of human relationship around that time, it simply does nothing to showcase, or even mention the horrors that the concentration camps held. Also, the author eliminates/misjudges some facts of the camps and uses some artistic liberties. Thirdly, and lastly, with all due respect to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, I don’t feel this book glorifies the Nazis or their families in any sense. It is, in fact, the opposite. Extremely subtly, it exposes their hypocrisy, all the while proving what the German masses at that time were, egoistic, stupid, and too blind to see right from wrong.
While the first half is all about Bruno cribbing about his new house and the dissolution that place has around itself, the platonic relationship between the boys is the focus of the second half, with mostly Bruno doing the talking and Schmuel being a mere mute listener, but having a much more profound effect on me with whatever little he says, than anything else. Their talks seem so innocent amidst all the horrors that surround them, like the flora beneath a rock, like the entire life beneath the ocean ice sheet. The boys couldn’t have been more different than they already were, yet their almost instant mutual likeness is surprising. One doesn’t expect a boy like Bruno to make friends with a boy like Schmuel had he had someone else to play with. Was it only the lack of company that drove Bruno to Schmuel? The other characters, however scarce, were good enough to drive their characteristics home. The “Commandant” father, the “medicinal sherry drinking” mother, the “hopeless case” sister Gretel, the “upright” grandmother, the “disillusioned” grandfather, the “grateful” Maria, the “high headed” junior, the “doctor” waiter, all had their presence felt.
I hadn’t expected the ending that the story gives, in fact, I was thinking entirely along a different path. Once done, I understood that there could have been no better ending than what the author has written, anything else wouldn’t have done justice to the boys and their story. It wasn’t about Bruno for me, but about Schmuel, all along. The former was only a premise for the fable of the boy in the striped pyjamas, like the title of the book says, it was always about his sacrifice.
I would definitely recommend this book to all adults, and children only if they have background information about WWII and the Holocaust to appreciate the story and read between the lines.