Book review of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ is a wonderfully told story. In the foreground runs a thread of an enduring friendship between two innocent boys, one, a son of a Nazi commandant and other a Jewish prisoner. In the background is the context of the Nazi holocaust. It is the intersection of these two that makes this story both captivating yet devastating. In that it has a strange parallel in Khaled Hosseini's 'Kite Runner'.
Bruno, the son of the Nazi Commandant is innocent enough to be oblivious of the greater designs that his people have for the people on the other side of the fence - all of whom strangely wear striped pyjamas . There is a subtle originality to this nine year old that sometimes would seem a perfect recipe for dissent against the overwhelming Nazi setup, but for his innocence. Or is it because of it?
He uncharacteristically disapproves the actions of his
father’s soldiers and his father’s too. And asks questions as simple but as
unconventional as – ‘Why should one be rude to some people?’ or ‘Is it fair to
starve some people on the other side of the fence?’ This unconventionalism, in
an age when the best of the intellect leaned towards Nazism, is attributed to
the nine year old’s innocence, his inherent love and his unadulterated sympathy
for other human beings. Through this, Boyne probably suggests that pure
sympathy not yet bridled by the simplistic reasoning of political ideologies or
stereotypes had the prudence to question the terrible acts. He portrays as
coming from the boy’s innocence what couldn’t come from the intellect of some
of the best of the minds of the time. So is this ‘pure sympathy’ the antidote
to 'simplistic reasoning' then? Here is where I somewhat disagree with the
theme of the story. Is sympathy too not
a product of our empirics? Is sympathy too not based on, rather than cogged
or limited by our biases and even our prejudices? Is ‘Pure sympathy’ not as
elusive a notion as ‘Pure reason’ itself?
The story is as much about the men in the Nazi uniform as it
is about the ‘boy in the striped pyjamas’. It is important to understand that
the Germans who were influenced by the Nazis were not people with horns. They
were probably as charismatic, courageous and disciplined as anybody else in
their daily lives. Demonization of their daily lives, as is done many times,
leads to both obfuscation and wrong understanding of the potential at havoc
that simplistic ideas can bring. It underestimates the ability of such
political ideologies to capture the minds of good people which in my view is
more dangerous than the political ideologies that only attract just the rogues.
The challenge should be to understand how even good people went on to become
one of the greatest barbarians of all times. That way this story has very few
generalizations on this count, although many have pointed that such a story is
quite unrealistic on many other counts.
The story, however tragic, ends with two lines filled with
optimism: “This had happened a long time ago and nothing like it can ever
happen again. Not in this day and age”. I share Boyne’s hope but am not as
confident enough to share his optimism. The certitude that human mind has
evolved enough not to be acted upon by such wild ideas again, is a bit hard to