The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
UK first edition book cover
|Genre||Historical / post modern|
|Publisher||David Fickling Books|
|5 January 2006|
|Media type||Print (hard cover & paper back)|
|LC Class||CS 2006/45764|
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a 2006 Holocaust novel by Irish novelist John Boyne. Much like the process he undertakes when writing most of his novels, Boyne has said that he wrote the entire first draft in two and a half days, without sleeping much, but also that he was quite a serious student of the Holocaust for years before the idea for the novel even came to him. The book has received mixed criticism, with positive reviews praising the novel as a moral tale, while negative reviews attack the book's historical inaccuracies and the damage it may cause to people's education about the Holocaust.
As of 5 December 2016, the novel had sold more than seven million copies around the world. In both 2007 and 2008, it was the best-selling book of the year in Spain, and it reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was adapted in 2008 as a film of the same name as well as a ballet in 2017.
Boyne has described the conception of his novel as an idea popping into his head of "two boys, the mirror of each other, sitting either side of a wire fence." While the conception of the book came about fast, his inspiration for writing has a more lengthy foundation. Boyne has stated that his style and writing process has been influenced by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, who suggested he write every day without rest days.
Much like other novels he has written, Boyne has described how he wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in roughly two and a half days, with the idea for the novel coming to him on Tuesday, 27 April, then wrote non-stop until Friday at noon. Afterwards, he ended up writing ten different drafts before sending his book to the editor. As for the subject material and research that Boyne undertook to write the book, Professor Gern Bayer from the University of Erlangen has stated that Boyne relied on "well-known facts" to create his narrative.
Bruno is a 9-year-old boy growing up during World War II in Berlin. He lives with his parents, his 12-year-old sister Gretel, whom he describes as 'A Hopeless Case,' and maids, one of whom is named Maria. After a visit by Adolf Hitler, Bruno's father is promoted to Commandant, and the family has to move to "Out-With" because of the orders of "The Fury" (Bruno's naïve interpretation of the word "Führer"). Bruno is initially upset about moving to Out-With (in actuality, Auschwitz) and leaving his friends, Daniel, Karl and Martin. From the house at Out-With, Bruno sees a camp in which the prisoners wear "striped pyjamas" (prison clothes). One day, Bruno decides to explore the wire fence surrounding the camp. As he walks along the fence, he meets a Jewish boy named Shmuel, who he learns shares his birthday and age. Shmuel says that his father, grandfather, and brother are with him on his side of the fence, but he is separated from his mother. Bruno and Shmuel talk and become very good friends, although Bruno still does not understand very much about Shmuel and his side of the fence. Nearly every day, unless it's raining, Bruno goes to see Shmuel and sneaks him food. As he visits Shmuel more and more, Shmuel gets more and more skinny.
Bruno concocts a plan with Shmuel to sneak into the camp to look for Shmuel's father. Shmuel brings a set of prison clothes (which look to Bruno like striped pyjamas), and Bruno leaves his own clothes outside the fence. As they search the camp, both children are rounded up along with a group of prisoners on a "march." They are led into a gas chamber, which Bruno assumes is simply a shelter from the outside rainstorm. In the gas chamber, Bruno apologizes to Shmuel for not finding his father and tells Shmuel that he is his best friend for life. It's unknown if Shmuel answers him because as soon as the door is closed, the lights go out and all is chaos. However, Bruno is determined that even in chaos, he will never let go of Shmuel's hand.
Bruno is never seen again and days later, his clothes are discovered by a soldier. His mother spends months afterwards searching for him, even returning to their old home, before at last moving to Berlin with Gretel, who isolates herself in her room. Bruno's father spends a year more at Out-With, becoming ruthless and coldhearted towards his subordinates. A year later, he returns to the place where Bruno's clothes were found and pieces together how his son disappeared, collapsing in grief. Months later, Allied Troops storm the camp and Bruno's father, racked with guilt, allows himself to be taken prisoner.
The book ends with the phrase; "Of course, all of this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age."
Genre and style
The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas fits into the genre of Holocaust fiction. Boyne uses general knowledge about the Holocaust to create a self-described "fable," that relies more on a story of moral truth than historical accuracy. This type of literature, as shown in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has a tendency to be told to children, from a child's perspective. By having one child share the "bitter herbs" of history with another, the novel instills moral obligation in children.
Kenneth Kidd, professor of English at the University of Florida, argues that John Boyne's use of fable allows him to explore the darker elements of the Holocaust with more of a cautionary tale resulting.
In a broader context
Proponents of Holocaust literature, like Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, former director of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, contend that Holocaust literature is essential for remembering, aides with Holocaust history courses and serves to educate the public on the causes of antisemitism. Beyond this, some critics have stated that Holocaust literature has a broader scope, outside of a narrative specific to Jews and the Holocaust. David Russell, writer for The Lion and the Unicorn, has stated that human decency is an ideal that must be upheld, with Holocaust literature like Boy in the Striped Pyjamas being used as a "cautionary tale" and must be written in a didactic manner.
In contrast, critics such as Jacob Neuser of Brown University have argued that Holocaust literature has negatively altered the American-Jewish identity by including the experiences of European Jews, while Arnold Jacob Wolf, a Reform Rabbi, has stated that Holocaust literature is an attack on the whole of the human race.
Sophie Melissa Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton, argues that writing a factual story as a fable is damaging as it may produce misconceptions about the Holocaust. Examples include the ability of Shmuel to escape work and Bruno's ability to approach an electrified fence.
Smith claims that Boyne lowers the culpability of Nazis like Bruno's father by not just humanizing them but also creating a sense of obligation in characters like Bruno's father, as Bruno's father was a Commandant at a large concentration camp. Additionally, the depiction of the story told through Bruno creates a greater ignorance of the Nazi regime by using words such as "the Fury" in place of the Fuhrer and "Out-with" in place of Auschwitz . Generally, critics see the trivialization of the Nazi regime in this portrayal as damaging to Holocaust education.
A 2009 study by the London Jewish Cultural center conducted a survey in which 75% of respondents thought Boyne's novel was based on a true story. Many students also thought "the tragic death of Bruno brought about the end of concentration camps."
Kathryn Hughes, writing in The Guardian, calls the novel "a small wonder of a book." She takes issue with the laxness of Auschwitz and describes the novel as "something that borders on fable," arguing that "Bruno's innocence comes to stand for the willful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses."
Nicholas Tucker, writing in The Independent, calls the novel "a fine addition to a once taboo area of history, at least where children's literature is concerned." He asserts that it is a good depiction of a tragic event that strays away from graphic details, with the exception of the "killer punch" at the end of the novel.
Ed Wright, writing in The Age of Melbourne, calls the novel "a touching tale of an odd friendship between two boys in horrendous circumstances and a reminder of man's capacity for inhumanity." He felt that the depiction of Bruno and Shmuel's friendship was a classic childhood friendship with a naïvety of their surroundings. He concludes by observing that "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” is subtitled “A Fable," and sets out to create a moral story of human nature in a fable format. 
A. O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, questioned the author and publisher's choice to intentionally keep the Holocaust setting of the book vague in both the dust jacket summary and the early portion of the novel. Scott described how the experiences of the characters were supposed to be represented as separate from the setting of the Holocaust, and this creates a lack of the informative nature seen in other novels of Holocaust literature such as Night by Elie Wiesel. Scott claims that "there is something awkward about the way Boyne manages to disguise, and then to disclose, the historical context." Scott concludes that "to mold the Holocaust into an allegory, as Boyne does here with perfectly benign intent, is to step away from its reality."
Rabbi Benjamin Blech offered a historical criticism, contending that the premise of the book and subsequent film – that there could be a child of Shmuel's age in Auschwitz – was impossible, writing of the book: "Note to the reader: there were no 9-year-old Jewish boys in Auschwitz – the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work." Rabbi Blech affirmed the opinion of a Holocaust survivor friend that the book is "not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation." Students who read it, he warns, may believe the camps "weren't that bad" if a boy could conduct a clandestine friendship with a Jewish captive of the same age, unaware of "the constant presence of death."
Holocaust scholar Henry Gonshak rebuts Blech's historical contention in his book Hollywood and the Holocaust, writing that "the rabbi found implausible Shmuel's very existence in the camp," but stating that "Blech is factually incorrect." While there were no female children, Nazi records have shown that in 1944 "there were 619 male children at the camp, ranging in age from one month to fourteen years old." Gonshak contends that although this fact is present, it does not take away from the thousands of children that were killed in the gas chambers.
In other media
In 2017, the novel was adapted into a ballet by the Northern Ballet. The score is produced by Gary Yershon. Reviews of the ballet are generally negative with Zo and Euml Anderson of The Independent stating the casting of children's parts as adults works against "the naivety of a child's viewpoint," which the novel captures. Doncaster Cast of The Yorkshire Post has described the score as "a relentless assault on the ears," but apart from the music, Cast has stated that it has redeemable quality in the cast, despite being depressing.
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