Revisiting ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’

Some books are worth a second read.  Such was the case with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

I’d read the book years ago and remember the impact it had on me. Then, a week ago, I spotted it on my ‘special’ bookshelf, wedged between other books that I deem worthy of further reads. I’d been looking for an example of a story told in third person as this one is, and that gave me an excuse to dip into the book a second time.

Boyne’s story tells the tale of two nine-year-old boys – Bruno and Shmuel – who live on opposite sides of the concentration camp fence at Auschwitz during the second world war. Bruno is the son of the German commandant in charge of the camp.  Shmuel is a Jewish prisoner. As the story evolves, the two become friends and meet at the fence almost daily. The conclusion – which I won’t spoil for you – is deeply affecting and memorable.

Although I had viewed the movie version after my first read, I found myself more engaged in the text the second time around than in any scene in the film.  A number of things about Boyne’s writing struck me as I read the book again.  One was its simplicity. Boyne’s writing is sparse and unadorned. Not a word is wasted. The sparseness of the story matches the sparseness of the setting, and it echoes the loneliness and horror facing those on both sides of the fence at Auschwitz.

Another striking feature is the way Boyne immerses us in the thoughts and feelings of his main characters. We see and feel almost everything from Bruno’s perspective. He’s a nine-year-old who is trying to make sense of what is happening around him.  He is curious, asks questions, and when answers aren’t forthcoming, he formulates conclusions that – to him, at least – match circumstances that he doesn’t quite understand. All this deepened my reading experience and had me asking some of the same questions as Bruno.

Some of the best examples of this nine-year-old sense-making come from the names that Bruno assigns to people and places. To Bruno, the Fuher sounds like the Fury and so that is the name he assigns Adolph Hitler. Auschwitz is Out-With. He calls his sister, Gretel, a Hopeless Case and Trouble From Day One. His father’s office is Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, John Boyne writes:  “Fences such as the one at the heart of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas still exist; it is unlikely that they will ever fully disappear.”

With border walls cropping up between countries, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seemed even more relevant and striking to me on my second read. It is a thought-provoking story, not suitable for nine-year-olds, but excellent for more mature readers.

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