Evil can be glossed over by innocence but in the end subsumes it. This is vividly conveyed by Irish writer John Boyne in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a powerful narrative of lost innocence set in Nazi Germany.
It all begins simply enough. Nine-year-old Bruno has to suddenly leave a familiar and beloved home where he could slide five floors down on a fine banister, and move with his parents and his twelve year old sister Gretel to a place called ‘Out With', where Father was going to be doing a very important job. ‘ The Fury' had dined with them the week before, and after that Bruno's father was given a brand new assignment, and as Bruno's mother told him, he would now have to wear a grander uniform than the one he had been wearing. So the family, with their entourage of staff and servants, leaves bustling Berlin. Sadly for Bruno, he has to also leave behind his three best friends, not to mention his beloved grandparents; he has to move far away to a much smaller, sequestered house with only Gretel (whom he thinks of as a Hopeless Case) for company. From his bedroom window, homesick Bruno can see groups of people in the distance, all in striped pyjamas moving about slowly behind a tall and endless wire fence. And because Bruno loves exploring, he soon sets out to find out more, although when he had asked his father who the people in the striped pyjamas were, his father had said that they were not people. The language and structure of this novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by the Irish writer John Boyne, labelled as young adult fiction in early editions, is deceptively simple. But this is definitely a book that adults must read; it is a fable set in living history that will jolt readers of all ages.
While evil hiding among us is an ancient theme (as Agatha Christie once said), in this book evil is the base, glossed over by an innocence that is at one level redemptive, but at another level shocking. Bruno is the much loved child of a Nazi Commandant; but he is also an endearing little boy who adores his parents, is frustrated in typical sibling fashion with his pre-teen older sister, and in all aspects a solid little fellow; curious, full of energy and also trusting and innocent in a manner that sometimes seems a bit paradoxical for someone as intelligent as he is. He does, however, notice that all the adults in his family are not as happy about Father's job after all. His grandmother, who was in the theatre in her youth and was prone to singing La Vie En Roseat all their dinners (something that made the hairs at the back of Bruno's neck stand on end), seemed very disappointed with Father.
“…The people you have to dinner in this house, why it makes me sick.” she declares, adding, “…to see you in that uniform makes me want to tear the eyes from my head.”
Interestingly, the narrative just positions this conversation as something Bruno overhears and offers no comment from the boy. The power of the book in fact lies in the way that the reader instantly connects with his innocence and is willing to see his worldview, also follow him as the story unfolds, although with our adult sensibilities and the hindsight of history we cannot help fearing that something terrible is bound to happen. The setting is Nazi Germany after all.
One day Bruno the explorer is out in his garden and notices a dot in the distance that grows nearer into a boy. A boy, who also wears striped pyjamas, an armband with a star and lives on the other side of the fence and, wonder of wonders, was born on the exact same day and year as Bruno. The irony is very clear, and is further emphasised in the regular exchanges between Bruno and Shmuel, who begin to meet secretly on either side of the fence every day. For instance, when Shmuel tells Bruno that he comes from Poland, and Bruno asks him where that is, Shmuel replies, “But this is Poland.”
In another conversation Bruno admires Shmuel's armband and proudly tells him that his father wears a nice one too, but of a different design. The friendship between the two boys deepens and Bruno, oblivious to the cruelties being perpetrated in his country, cannot understand many things about Shmuel. He cannot understand Shmuel's black eye (must have been caused by a bully like the ones in his Berlin school, Bruno is sure); he cannot understand why Shmuel wears striped pyjamas everyday and doesn't he feel like wearing something different from his wardrobe; and he cannot understand why Shmuel's hands were like dying twigs. Bruno feels that Shmuel is also lucky that he has hundreds of other little boys to play with in Out With.
Bruno then decides to crawl under the fence and go with Shmuel to see what it is really like on the other side. The end of the story is shocking and heart breaking - even though the reader is aware from the beginning that the friendship between the child of a Nazi Commandant (who is in charge of Auschwitz) and a little Jewish boy in the concentration camp is doomed, what happens takes the reader's breath away. The power of the book lies in its elegant yet telling message about the consequences of evil. It is a moral tale that recognises that the spread of evil can subsume innocence that has had no part in the evil. As the writer George Eliot said, “Consequences are unpitying…our deeds carry their terrible consequences…and are hardly ever confined to ourselves”
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, David Fickling Books, a division of Random House, first published in 2006