marginalia || The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne

I don’t have as much free time as I did before, resulting in rather random choices for reading material—my plans for an Awesome April isn’t quite going as planned (failing to participate in the Readathon I’d long waited for, among others). The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne was never in my reading plans. But, yes, harried schedule calls for haphazard book choices: I unfortunately scoured a BookSale, and came up with this book. The blogosphere had been abuzz re this title a couple of months ago (in pre-S&TS days). I was dubious, though–it never appealed to me. Knowing next to nothing about the book–even the blurb didn’t reveal much–I had to talk myself into sitting down with it.

Of course I read it in one sitting. I am predictable that way. Heh. Following, lifted from my LRM, and I’m in a considerate mood, so I disguised possible spoilers:

* * *

# 72 [of 2010] • THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS

→ a novel (well, fable) by JOHN BOYNE

We rely on Bruno, a nine-year-old, to tell us this story. On one hand, we feel the same confusions as him, and raise the same questions–initially: Why did they move from Berlin? What does his Father do? What the bleep is happening? But his innocence steers him to his answers; easy to realize that us readers know more than this boy. Ah, dramatic irony. Bruno tells us that his family has been relocated to Out-With; his father’s a commandant, and The Fury “has big plans for him.” Sasha realizes that Bruno is the son of one of Hitler’s top officers, and the family is now living at the fringes of Auschwitz. Da-dum!

Going to Bruno and his sister Gretel’s reaction to seeing Out-With for the first time. It’s chilling. They don’t know what’s out there, but children instinctively know when something is wrong. How extraordinary, is what Bruno mutters. The simplicity of it all. So Father is a Nazi commandant. He’s handsome in his uniform. He’s A Big Deal. And as much as we readers want a story in which Father is simply a victim of circumstance, well, Father likes his job.

♦ Bruno is a sheltered boy. Naive. His older sister calls him stupid, as loving older sisters are wont to do. Bruno’s naivete is necessary for this story to work. There has to be a juxtaposition between this unblemished boy who can’t really take any sides because he has no idea what’s going on. He’s innocent in all this; he can’t make judgment. A nine-year-old sheltered boy–even if he is the son of Nazi commandant (well, even more so because…)–is the perfect blank slate we can see this tale through.

Sometimes, though, I felt that Boyne was laying it on thick. Craft-wise, he needed Bruno to be as naive as he was, else this would have been all full of cheap tricks and false heroics and sentimental drivel. But when it works, it works:

[Bruno] pushed his two feet together and shot his right arm into the air before clicking his two heels together and saying in as deep and clear a voice as possible–as much like Father’s as he could manage–the words he said every time he left a soldier’s presence.

Heil Hitler,” he said, which, he presumed, was another way of saying, “Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.”

However, Boyne’s self-awareness in labelling this book a fable saves it from being too off-putting. It’s okay to be two-dimensional and occasionally unbelievable when you’re part of a fable. There must be a rule about that somewhere.

Bruno and Shmuel comparing their hands. Oh, my heart–I feel like this book is going to break you into itty-bitty pieces.

♦ I just finished reading the book. It’s kind of amazing, though I might have a problem with the last chapter called, appropriately enough, “The Last Chapter.” That felt rather unceremonious. Too abrupt. Why didn’t Boyne prolong it? Imagine the drama!

♦ [About three hours later:] Oh crap, I totally take that last one back. The simplicity and the “abruptness” of that last scene was completely deceptive; the images sneak up on you when you least expect it. It lingered, without me knowing it. So breathtaking in its unexpectedness, its sadness, the disarming cruelty. My goodness, that ending resonates even when you’d dismissed it already. My god. Just. My god.

* * *

I feel so scarred by that ending. That was just awesome. I don’t even feel emotionally manipulated or blackmailed into feeling for it. It was just Whoa. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to even like this book–it was just to keep me company. But, again, Whoa.

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23 comments

  1. I read this book a few years ago!! It’s extremely heartbreaking. They made it into a movie, and the last scene was just too much for me — look it up when you have time. I love how it was told in the pov of a kid who was naive to so many things. And he makes friends with him. :(( Oh. </3

    My favorite part was when he shaved his head. Then they realized that they looked alike, and they hardly were any different from each other.

    In other news, are you planning to read Miguel syjuco's "Ilustrado"? Hope you blog about it. I wanna know wacha think. ;)

    1. I have the movie, and I’m definitely going to watch it. Although some people might be turned off by Bruno’s naivete, I still think it’s necessary. The parallelisms and the marked differences between him and Shmuel was just so simply stated. And the head-shaving should have clued me in to the ending. But, no, Boyne really threw a surprise at me.

      And yes, Ilustrado is on my To-Read list. I’ve been drooling over the many many many copies in the bookstores. Will definitely tell everyone what I think about it, haha.

  2. I have the movie version on my Netflix queue, but think I will instead read the book, first. Your review is absolutely gorgeous, by the way. I am actually aching to read this.

    1. Thank you so much, Rebecca. :) The DVD of this movie is around the apartment. Somewhere. I’ll watch it soon. And maybe sniffle louder, heh.

  3. True story: I picked this up in a bookstore and read the last paragraph and it STILL made me cry. I hadn’t read it before, only watched the film.

    I don’t quite get what people mean when people say something is emotionally manipulative. Isn’t that the job of a good book? Maybe they mean, obviously manipulative, not subtle or artful enough.

    1. The images in that last chapter come to me at odd places, and they still affect me. Last night, I read the scene again, and let the images permeate me. Heartbreak all over again.

      And good point about emotionally manipulative. Of course literature is emotionally manipulative–they wouldn’t be literature otherwise, me thinks. You’re right, you’re right. I suppose, yes, my point was that some books rely on the tearjerkers and tropes so much that the telling is compromised. Yes, not subtle. Yes, not artful. I hate books that are so obviously self-aware of what effect they’ll have on the reader. Take The Postmistress, for example.

      Thanks, Lija!

  4. I never would have considered reading this but now I must reconsider. Awesome review. I love it when an ending lingers like that.

    1. Thanks, Ash. I thought this one wasn’t for me — I even just scrolled down when blogger friends reviewed it, haha. But I liked this one a lot. In my more quiet moments (haha), I dwell on that ending, and my face starts to wobble in a cry.

    2. you love it it U have no emotion do u

  5. stilettostorytime · · Reply

    This book really affected me to. I unfortunately saw the movie before I knew it was a book and after I found that out of course I had to read the book also. Both are equally harrowing. However the movie does a wonderful job of making the book come to life and showing the grim realities of that time. The ending in itself whether in the book or movie..shocking and yet it stays with you. You think about the tragedy of those times and yet the friendships that formed however unlikely…I think the book is a wonderful motivation for thinking…and conversing. So glad you read it!

    1. I have a copy of the movie, and will definitely read it soon. I’m almost afraid how charged the visuals would be: seeing Bruno and Shmuel and their fence, such an unlikely friendship, yes. And that ending. That ending would break my heart all over again. Sometimes, now, I think, “Really, Boyne, really? You had to do this to me?”

  6. Kathleen · · Reply

    I’ve heard so many good things about this book. I have it on my list but I really need to get to it sooner rather than later.

    1. I hope that when you get around to reading it, you enjoy it too. :)

  7. Loved this book when I read it a few years back. Love your thought of it three hours later. It’s quite amazing actually, how it stays with you. Because after about three years, reading a post about the book brings those images back into my head again.

    1. I underestimated this book, I really did. Goes to show how judgmental I can be, haha. Thanks so much, Michelle. Maybe three years from now, I’d leave a note on your blog, telling you how Bruno and Shmuel still resonate.

  8. I read the book and saw the movie last month. IMO the movie beats the book. I didn’t really enjoy reading itbut did enjoy watching it.

    1. I’ve unearthed the DVD from the stack back home–might be watching it soon. I think the visuals will really pack a punch: the children, the fence. And I’m emotionally terrified of how the movie will portray that ending, haha.

  9. i had to read this for school and in my opinion it ends really poorly i dont like the ending its really random :L

    1. I thought the ending was really random too, at first. I mean, I hated that ending. But I eventually took it back; it really does resonate, mostly because I thought it was so unexpected.

      1. I think the ending gives the entire story its power, doesn’t it? I suspect that Boyne set the whole thing up for that ending (otherwise this story might not exist at all). It drives home the terrible but true point that you suddenly feel worse when the “regular” boy also becomes a victim of the Nazis, not just the characters we’ve already become desensitized to dying in concentration camps.

        1. In his Afterword, he shared how his first image was this fence and two boys, and he knew exactly who they were, and what they were doing there. It is a fable, in many aspects–the horror of a regular, even privileged boy, sharing the same fate as the Jews. And, yes, exactly, Lija–because it’s not “supposed” to happen, this blond boy isn’t “supposed” to be a victim as all the other stories we’ve, sadly, gotten used to, it’s just more chilling. Even our reactions to the story are an integral part of the story. How we gasp, how we recoil. And then, like now, thinking about wy we’d gasped and recoiled. Awesome.

  10. I think the book was so unexpected think about all these jews who died why would you only care about bruno it happen to thouand of children and why is it only bruna

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