Last year, John Boyne made the news for making the mistake of including ingredients from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild video game such as Octorok eyeball, hightail lizard, red lizalfo tail, and Hylian shrooms into his serious literary historical fiction novel, The Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom. It appeared that he had simply Googled “ingredients red dye clothes” or some such and literally copied the top result from the search page into his manuscript. He did not even click on the link to look at the source. The presence of such words like “Octorok”, “lizalfo” and “shrooms” failed to give him pause.
In a way, I am glad I learned about this before I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It helped give me an understanding of the sort of writer Mr Boyne is. A kind way of saying it is that he is a person who would not let facts get in the way of what a good story. It is undeniable that he indeed wrote a book which is compelling enough to wow a lot of critics and readers.
There exist a subgenre of books which use the perspective of an innocent or naive point of view—often a child—to explore serious and difficult subject matters. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon views the foibles of adult relationships and family through the eyes of a child with autistic spectrum disorder. Emma Donoghue’s Room tells a very dark story of a woman and child’s imprisonment through its 5-year-old narrator. This is a device which handily heightens the dramatic irony of any story, since the young or innocent character’s understanding of their situation lags far behind that of the readers’.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas‘ protagonist and point of view character is a 9-year-old German boy named Bruno, and the subject matter is the Holocaust. I said he is 9, but his actual mental age appears to be much, much younger. It boggles my mind how Bruno can grow up in a military household and yet, is unable to grasp the pronunciation and the meaning of the word Führer in spite being corrected multiple times (he mangles it to “Fury”). It makes even less sense when one realises that führer is a common suffix to many German words like Bergführer (mountain guide) or Kirchenführer (church leader), and that there were multiple titles in the SS which used it like Hauptsturmführer and Standartenführer. My own kid was able to pronounce titles like “President” and “Prime Minister” when he was half Bruno’s age! And Bruno is depicted as literate and a lover of books and he is able to read what I presume is a German translation of Treasure Island—so I am unable to understand how he keeps mispronouncing Auschwitz as “Out-With” when he lives there and had seen it in writing. What’s worse is that Bruno somehow thinks that “Heil Hitler” is just another way of saying “Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.” These are mistakes that an English-speaking child would make, not a German one. I wonder if Mr Boyne meant Bruno to have a learning disability or that he simply thought children are idiots. This gets worse throughout the book when Bruno applied the same level of obliviousness to everything else—even obviously horrible things—happening around him. I had, in all honesty, met more perceptive sea cucumbers than this kid.
That aside, this book had also been criticised by many for its historical inaccuracies and organisations like The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre in UK and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum had both publicly cautioned against reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas when learning about the Holocaust. There was a memorable tiff last year which started with Mr Boyne unironically criticising other authors on Twitter for thoughtlessly and carelessly capitalising on the Holocaust as a subject matter. When the Auschwitz Museum clapped back by pointing out the deficiencies of Mr Boyne’s own book, Boyne responded by lecturing the Auschwitz Museum about Auschwitz. I don’t know about you but I find it hard to side with the guy whose research efforts included accidentally copying fantasy video game ingredients from the 1st page of a cursory Google search.
One question is worth answering though: can a sanitised view of the Holocaust serve as an introduction to it for younger readers? Growing up, I have read deeply flawed and ahistorical books which then served as the catalyst for me to find out more, so it is not impossible that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can perform this service. At the same time, as I was reading it, I simply cannot imagine developing any foothold on the subject as a child without some foreknowledge or guidance from an adult. And if one reads it without context, it appears to be a rather underwhelming story with a baffling ending. Bruno is infuriatingly thick, and Shmuel—the titular character—only appears at the halfway mark of this book and for some reason, is strangely protective of Bruno’s innocence, dropping difficult conversation topics immediately whenever the merest twinge of cognitive dissonance starts to creep into Bruno’s very smooth brain. I can imagine schoolteachers gleefully assigning this to their students though, and I think that is the best way for children to access this book because it shouldn’t be read without some guidance. And I suppose adults with a passing knowledge of the horrors of Nazi concentration camps and Jewish persecution (but not very familiar with them) may enjoy a couple of hours pointing in recognition at all the dark allusions which flapped weakly over Bruno’s head. They can coo admiringly at the themes about the inherent goodness of children and how we are really all the same when we shave our heads and put on matching clothes, while remaining unbothered by the lack of verisimilitude in Mr Boyne’s portrayal of Auschwitz.
That being said, it is not a hard book to read and Mr Boyne’s writing is engaging. I think the fact that it is told from the perspective of a German boy is not a mark against it—there exist plenty of other books written from the perspective of Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust after all. I think the only way one can really read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is as a fairy tale—a fabulistic version of the Holocaust. It is outright fantasy when a 9-year-old child managed to remain un-racist in a household run by an authoritarian father who bought thoroughly into Nazi antisemitic propaganda (I know it is an incredible feat because I struggle to keep racist beliefs from creeping into my own kid’s mind ever since he learned to talk and carry conversations with other people). It is fantasy that Shmuel would be able to sit unsupervised for long periods of time talking to a Bruno at the edge of the camp. It is fantasy that Shmuel would be able to steal a spare uniform, give it to Bruno, and sneak Bruno into where his people are imprisoned. There are a lot of contrivances and gimmes that one would have to allow in order for this book to work, and whether they are worth it or not depends on whether one values the morality lesson it delivers. So is it worth it? I said earlier that Mr Boyne is a writer who would not let facts get in the way of a good story, but it seems to me that he would not let them get in the way of a mediocre one either.
P.S. My copy came with Oliver Jeffers’ astounding illustrations. They are a perfect mix of innocence and darkness, and it seems like they say some of the things that Mr Boyne should have said in the text. They certainly made the book better for me.