Saturday, 18 November 2006

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne, 2006

THE BOY IN STRIPED PYJAMAS John Boyne, David Fickling Books, 216 pages, hardback, $34.95 ISBN 0-385-60940-X

Bruno, the main character, is nine years old but this story is not for nine-year-olds.

An interesting question, with more than literary significance, is how a writer can make readers care about the murder of millions. One way is to introduce one or two of the millions and show them as human. (Morris Gleizman did this brilliantly in Once, with a Polish boy running from the German authorities.) But what if the reader is unsympathetic to the murder victims, unwilling to grant them human status? A remarkable solution is in The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, where John Boyne uses nine-year-old Bruno’s perception of events to gently introduce a situation that is not at all gentle.

Bruno, who sees and hears more than he understands, is not so much innocent as self-absorbed, firmly centred on his own activities. He is disturbed when the servants pack the family’s possessions but relieved that his father is moving from Berlin to a more important position. Bruno knows his father is important because he is often visited by “men in fantastic uniforms…and they were very polite to Father and told each other that he was a man to watch and that the Fury had big things in mind for him”.
Bruno is disappointed by his new country home, which he thinks is called Out-With. There is nobody to play with although he can see some people on the other side of an enormous fence. “Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno,” explains Father. Even before Bruno sees the low huts and smoke stacks in the distance, his readers have worked out what Father’s new job is and who the Fury might be. Bruno never grasps what is going on but we appreciate the moral quandary facing his parents and those around them. Then Bruno’s quest for a playmate leads him to the boy of the title. What follows has the pre-ordained completeness of a fable and I defy anyone to stop reading at this point.

With its tense moments and tragic misunderstandings, this superbly-written novel is a sensitive and thoughtful introduction to an unspeakably awful occurrence.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, on January 28th 2006.

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