|THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS
John Boyne (johnboyne.com)
Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (www.oliverjeffers.com)
Bruno is nine years old when his father’s job forces the family to pack up their beautiful Berlin home and move to the desolate Polish countryside. This is Out-With, a cold and unpleasant place where neither Bruno nor his sister want to stay, both missing their friends and the hustle and bustle of central Berlin. There is a window in Bruno’s bedroom, and it overlooks the tall barbed-wire fence that stretches for miles in either direction at the end of their garden. From the window, Bruno can see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are living on the other side of the barbed wire fence, all of them dressed in the same striped pyjamas and cloth caps. It strikes Bruno as unfair, so many people over on the other side of the fence while he is on this side, alone but for his sister (a Hopeless Case), until the day he decides to go for a walk, and makes a friend in Shmuel, a boy from the other side.
John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an instant classic when it was first published in 2006. Ten years on, and it is still as powerful and touching as it ever was. In it, we meet Bruno, and watch events unfold through his young, naïve eyes. Bruno is the son of the Commandant of the Auschwitz (Out-With) concentration camp, and finds himself uprooted from his happy life in Berlin (where he spends his days with his three best friends for life) and transplanted to a “horrible” new home in the middle of nowhere.
While it is obvious to the reader, with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight, what is going on, Bruno’s innocence, and the immediacy of what he finds himself in the middle of, give us a fresh perspective on a well-known story. Terrible things are happening here, but Bruno’s young and idealistic mind refuses to let him consider this, seeing the barbed-wire fence not as an enclosure, but simply as a wall preventing him from making friends with the hundreds of children who obviously live on the other side of it. And in the way of all small boys, Bruno cannot comprehend a scenario in which his father is evil, even if he is more than a little distant. To the reader, of course, his father’s attitude – not to mention his acceptance of the position – show his true colours.
‘No, not them,’ said Bruno. ‘The people I see from my window. In the huts, in the distance. They’re all dressed the same.’
‘Ah, those people,’ said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. ‘Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.’
When Bruno meets Shmuel, a young boy on the other side of the fence, his opinion of Out-With begins to change, but not as we might expect. Shmuel shares Bruno’s birthday, and is the son of a Polish watchmaker. Nothing but circumstance – the vagaries of their parents’ religions – separates the fates of these two boys, putting one outside the fence – well-fed and cared for – and the other inside – starving, overworked and, though neither of the boys can possibly understanding, facing almost-certain death. Bruno begins to enjoy his time here, and his long talks with Shmuel, seeming to wilfully ignore the horror of Shmuel’s circumstances – rebuffing tales of horror inside the camp with tales of his own misfortune, like the fact that they have left a five-storey house in the middle of Berlin to live in a three-storey house in a far-away place.
While Bruno and Shmuel form the heart of the story, Boyne populates the narrative with all manner of interesting characters, many of whom seem strange to the young boy who acts as our guide. From aloof Father and unhappy Mother, to Kurt, the young soldier with an evil temper, a questionable background and a soft spot for Bruno’s sister and mother, and Pavel, the vegetable-cutter and waiter who claims to have been a doctor in a former life, all of these characters are instantly recognisable stereotypes who nevertheless pop off the page, fully-formed and full of life. Even the (aptly-misheard) Fury and his beautiful blonde companion seem like interesting people in the eyes of Bruno.
For the book’s tenth anniversary, Doubleday have produced a beautifully-packaged “Deluxe Illustrated Edition”, with art by the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. As a fan of Jeffers’ work (one of the many joyful discoveries I have made in fatherhood), he seemed like a strange choice to illustrate such a dark and ultimately horrific novel. But having re-read the book and admired Jeffers’ artwork, I’m now convinced that he was the right – perhaps the only – choice. His simplistic drawings, filled with childlike beauty, match the childlike narrative perfectly, though often showing us proceedings from a more adult, and sometimes very shocking, perspective.
From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?