The boy in the striped pajamas: An instructive fable

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The boy in the striped pajamas, the controversial 2006 novel by the Irish author John Boyne, is described in its subtitle as “a fable”. By its own admission, therefore, this novel doesn’t propose to offer a realistic historical account of the Holocaust. A fable, by definition, uses make-believe characters and circumstances to illustrate a simple moral lesson. This novel is very short: only 216 pages. The author stated that he wrote it in one swoop, in two and a half days. Written simply, almost naively, from the perspective of a German nine-year-old boy whose father is in charge of the Auschwitz concentration camp, this novel is commonly taught, along with The Diary of Anne Frank, in U.S. middle schools and high schools as an introduction to the Holocaust.

The boy in the striped pajamas (New York: Random House, 2006) fared well worldwide, selling over 5 million copies and becoming a bestseller in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia.  The novel achieved such popularity that it was subsequently made into a film in 2008 (with the same title), directed by Mark Herman, starring Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie and Ruper Friend. Although widely acclaimed, The boy in the striped pajamas has also been criticized. Rabbi Benjamin Blech indignantly called it “not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation.” He’s not alone in arguing that the novel offers readers a completely false and misleading impression of what life in concentration camps was like.

The boy in the striped pajamas is, admittedly, very unrealistic. It describes the encounter between Bruno, the privileged nine-year-old son of a prominent Nazi party leader, and Shmuel, the downtrodden young prisoner in Auschwitz who has the same birthday and age as Bruno. The two meet nearly every day and talk for hours, for about a year, across the fence of the concentration camp. Even one such encounter would have been highly improbable. A meeting between a prisoner and the Nazi officer’s son lasting hours, day after day, would have been impossible, needless to say. The fences at Auschwitz were highly monitored by guards with weapons, by attack dogs, and by an electric fence. Moreover, Jewish prisoners observed a very strict regimen, which involved slave labor, roll calls that would take hours and forced marches that were sheer torture. Generally, children under the age of 15 were immediately selected for extermination as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz.  So no Jewish nine-year-old could have been absent for hours a day to chat amicably with a German boy, much less the son of a prominent Nazi officer. Moreover, if even one conversation could have taken place, presumably it would have quickly dispelled Bruno’s ignorance and naiveté about how Jewish children and their parents were treated at Auschwitz. The German boy would have ceased to wonder, for a year, why Shmuel was so thin and why he was always so hungry.

However, in assessing the merits of this novel, we need to keep in mind that The boy in the striped pajamas is not presented as either fact or historical fiction. It’s a fable with a moral. The main literary technique it uses in adopting the more or less innocent, if privileged, perspective of Bruno, is what the Russian formalist critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, called “ostranenie” or “defamiliarization”. Bruno’s innocent perspective exposes the assumptions of the grownups he deals with: his father, the Nazi leader; his mother, who is rather apolitical but nonetheless a beneficiary of her class and of the Nazi system; the servants who are afraid to speak their minds; and even his older sister, twelve-year old Gretel, who has already begun to accept the anti-Semitism and prejudices of the adults around her. Only Bruno can’t understand why his new friend, Shmuel, is skeletal; why he must wear every day striped pajamas; why the Jews are mistreated in this fashion; and why he, himself, has to live isolated from his peers in a big house near Auschwitz. Though not unintelligent, and more critical and curious than the adults around him, Bruno acts younger than his years. His childlike innocence fits more closely with the perspective of a six or seven year old—if not younger–boy.

As historical fact, the novel can be regarded as a failure. As fable, however, The boy in the striped pajamas delivers a worthwhile message. It shows that the mistreatment and prejudice against any group of people is wrong and unnatural. But the technique of defamiliarization in the novel goes deeper than this obvious moral lesson. It shows how even loving parents can corrupt the young into believing others—other religions, ethnicities or races—are subhuman and inferior to them. It reveals the social process, which begins at home, that normalizes class and racial hierarchies as well as prejudice, violence and hatred against the Jews (or any other social group). These perspectives are so counterintuitive to Bruno that willingly steps into Shmuel’s shoes—or, in this case, leaves his behind–in order to help his friend find his lost father in the concentration camp. You can imagine where such a venture leads.

Though far removed from the stark realism of Holocaust memoirs as well as from the objectivity of well-documented histories, The boy in the striped pajamas is nevertheless a successful thought-experiment. This fable invites readers to imagine what it must feel like to learn prejudice and racism from a very young age in a culture that artificially, and immorally, divides people in terms of the binary categories of human and subhuman.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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