Thursday, November 16, 2006

Allegory, Schmallegory: A Big Fat "Feh" for "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"

(Warning: spoilers ahead, including the end of the book)

It has been a long time since I've read a book that I loathe with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns. There are too many good books in the world for me to spend my time on something that infuriates me. But this month my book group read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Fable by John Boyne, and ding-ding-ding! We have a winner!

God, I hate this book.

If you've been reading the reviews, you'll know that this is the story of nine-year-old Bruno, a German boy who is forced to leave his friends, family, and comfortable home in Berlin and travel by train to a less comfortable house in Poland, at a place he pronounces as "Out-With." His father is the Commandant at a large camp just across from the house -- a camp surrounded by tall barbed wire fences, where lots of people in striped pajamas (as Bruno sees them) mill around all day. Bruno eventually makes friends with one of these boys, a thin little skeleton named Shmuel, who he meets every day at an unpatrolled point on the barbed-wire fence. Bruno thinks it's unfair that all the boys on the other side of the fence get to play together and have fun; poor Shmuel, apparently having decided that putting up with this idiot is the cost of the food he brings, never corrects him. Then one day, Bruno slips under the fence to help his friend look for his missing father. He dons a pair of striped pajamas, they get in line with a bunch of other people, they are herded into a dark room that looks like a shower . . . and boom, the doors are closed and no one ever hears from Bruno again. (Bruno's father is very sad when he realizes what's happened.) The end.

Roger has an insightful post today about the fact that the books that have generated the most discussion this year -- Edward Tulane, Gossamer, and Boy -- are all allegories, and wondering what it is in the nature of allegory that prompts this strong response. I tried to comment (but Blogger wouldn't let me -- you need to convert to Beta, Roger!) that allegories are one of the trickiest enterprises in fiction, as they have to succeed completely as both fiction and symbol; it's OK for the symbol to be a little shaky, actually, but if the fiction fails, the whole structure collapses. With the allegories that work -- The Mouse and His Child, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe -- their allegorical intent often doesn't become clear to the reader till much later in the reader's life, but they give pleasure at all ages as solely the great stories they are. The ones that fail often fail precisely because the author is thinking about his metaphor more than his story and characters, and that thinking shows in the writing. Allegories prompt such strong and passionate debate because we're able to debate not only the worth of the fiction (which will vary wildly from reader to reader, as aesthetic responses always do), but the worth of its moral message, and especially the ways in which that message is communicated -- with what subtlety (or lack thereof) the author shows his metaphorical hand.

All that said, my problem with Boy in the Striped Pajamas is that it fails completely for me as both fiction and symbol: I didn't like the main character, so I hated the story, and I didn't see the point Mr. Boyne was going after, so I felt he wasted my time. Throughout the book, Mr. Boyne can't decide how ignorant either his readers are or Bruno should be. Bruno knows at one point that there's a war going on, but later, when his sister Gretel moves pins around a map of Europe, he doesn't understand what she's doing. He has never heard of Hitler (whom he calls "The Fury"), nor of Jews. If the author had made him five or six rather than nine, then this might have been believable; as it is, it feels completely author-constructed and -manipulated, and it made me have zilch respect for Bruno -- or less than zilch, actually, as he's also a spoiled, selfish, ignorant brat. The author seems to like him, or at least think he's an okay kid doing the best he can, but when Bruno turns a blind eye to his "friend's" suffering and beatings . . . not okay! Who wants to hang out with a kid like that?

Boyne continues the ignorance game by keeping the name "Auschwitz" away from his readers with that "Out-with" -- a ploy I couldn't figure out, because if readers were approaching the story from the same ignorance as Bruno, they wouldn't have heard of Auschwitz, so it wouldn't matter if the name was included; and if readers knew anything about the Holocaust, they would see through it, and then it would come off as cutesy and evasive. The same is true of the ending: Without a knowledge of the Holocaust, readers would have had no idea Bruno went to the gas chamber, and therefore the story would have had no meaning for them. "He disappeared? Is that all?" If you have that knowlege, then I suppose you can recognize that Bruno has been punished for his ignorance, but without the main character grasping the message, the story is neither satisfying nor clear.

And is that even Boyne's point? According to a number of reviews, yes; they claim Bruno's deliberate ignorance is an allegory for the willfully blindness of adult Germans during the War. Perhaps so, but in that case, Boyne should have shown us Bruno's death scene so readers understood the consequences of such ignorance, no matter their prior knowledge of the situation; and the message would have been infinitely more effective if the book were written in first person or Bruno was at least respectable (if not likeable), so I gave a damn when he died. "Cabaret" focuses on that same willful ignorance, but the moral power of the show arises from the audience's awareness of that ignorance throughout the debauchery onstage, and its creators' final condemnation of that ignorance and display of its effects in the last scene of the show. If this is Boyne's point also, he's removed all the teeth from it. And if it's not, then, as Roger said in his review -- "If Auschwitz is the metaphor, what's the real story?"

The messages of this post, loud and clear and un-fabulous: Always, always, always write good fiction first. And don't waste your time on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.


  1. Cheryl,

    Thanks so much for this post. While I'm not worried that this book is going to do damage (whereas there are some who think so --- see the ccbcnet archives), I was really bothered by it. From the beginning I was completely unable to suspend disbelief as to Bruno so the rest didn't work.

    Interesting how writers are trying to use naive narrators when writing Holocaust stories. Jerry Spinelli did so as well with MILKWEED. I had trouble with that one because there were two voices going on, the main character looking back and the main character in the moment being naive. But it worked a hell of a lot better than Boyne's.


  2. I certainly won't waste my time with it. Feh.

  3. I can't agree with your post at all; I found the book to be one of the most affecting and well-written I have ever read. I had the good fortune of hearing Mr Boyne speak about the novel in front of a rapt audience of hundreds in Albany recently and believe me when I tell you that everyone there was absolutely captivated by the beauty of the novel and the sincerity of his talk.

    You state that you didn't like the main character and therefore didn't like the book. I don't see that one is a natural follow-on of the other. Bruno's natural innocence is a reflection of the life he's lived to that point where he doesn't think about the fact that there are evil things going on in the world; certain scenes in the story make him start to consider this.

    Also I don't think that it would have been a good idea to show the 'death scene'. Too many writers today feel they have to write absolutely everything that happens. I find it more interesting when a more challenging way of telling a story is presented and the reader must use their own imagination.

    And finally, perhaps you shouldn't give away the entire story right through to the denoument in your post. This is a book which is a bestseller and many people might not want to know how it turns out.

  4. Sounds like this one is a "throwing book".

  5. Hi Kathy,

    Well, any review comes with a "Your Mileage May Vary," and obviously your mileage did! You're right that Bruno is an innocent, and that not liking the main character should not necessarily dictate that I hate a story; but I do have to care about or be entertained by or interested in a character to be involved with a story, and since Bruno completely failed that test for me, I became very impatient with the novel he inhabited. He failed partly because I didn't believe in his innocence, for the reasons cited in my post; partly because his ignorance seemed to go beyond innocence to deliberate self-deception or stupidity; and partly because he failed the moral test for me of doing what's right when he saw something wrong (e.g. standing up for the gardener or Shmuel when they were beaten by the Lieutenant).

    You may also be right that Mr. Boyne is correct not to show Bruno's death or corpse; I too appreciate novels where the writer leaves things to the imagination, provided the novel can achieve its point without that dramatization. (Zadie Smith does this beautifully in "On Beauty.") But in this case I just found it baffling, because Bruno never grasps the evil to which he's been a witness/party, and Mr. Boyne conceals that evil from the reader as well. May I ask what you took the point of the novel to be, or what Mr. Boyne said about it at his reading? That might help me understand his thinking here.

    Finally, I put "Warning: spoilers ahead, including the end" at the top of my post, so people who didn't want to know what happened could easily skip the post.

  6. My question is, "Is this a children's book?" Or is it a fable for adults that has children in it like "Lord of the Flies"?

    I poked around Amazon to get some info and came across the most curious smackdown for not reading a book,

    "...while the simple prose and novel narrator make the story compellingly readable, too much of the story is predictable, and ultimately it's probably best left for classroom use. "

    "Left for classroom use?" It's not good enough to read at home but okay to be served up at school?

    I will puzzle over that sentence for the rest of the day,


  7. I love, love, LOVE allegorical books because the allegory can sometimes be in the mind of the reader--differing depending on their perspective. I think THE GIVER and THE GIVING TREE are two such books. Sounds as if this one has clunk written all over it which is sad because I think that particular allegory is worth exploring for children.

  8. i am a firm supporter of Pyjamas (we spell it differently on the other side of the world), and have been fascinated to read the varied opinions on it. but i keep asking myself the same question:

    would the people who hated it, feel the same way if it hadn't been about the Jewish Holocaust?

    What if it were about the Japanese holocaust, or set in Africa, or a completely imaginary world?

    i get the feeling that too many people are looking at the book through the eyes of history, instead of reading it (as the title suggests) as a fable.


  9. ybHrmm. I think we in the West do have a special sensitivity to the Holocaust, because we learn so much about it than we do about other genocides, its awfulness is concentrated rather than diffuse (like, say, the European settlers' wiping-out of Native Americans -- this is also what makes the Holocaust more accessible to fiction than other genocides), and it's so recent (historically speaking).

    But I felt strongly that the book failed on literary grounds more than anything else: Fables have morals, aka points, and as I keep saying, I didn't see the point of this. And I think that would have held true if it were set in the Bataan Death March or Armenia or Hiroshima.

  10. Haven't read it yet, but it rubs me the wrong way from the get-go that the boy misunderstands the word Auschwitz as "out with" because it would seem that kind of mishearing would result in other textual confusions as well, which I haven't heard about.

    In German, "out with" would be said "aus mit" which would make it hard to constantly and casually mistake repeatedly. It would make more sense to me that the boy would hear the name of the camp as two distinct words instead on one -- aus schwitz -- which translates into "out sweat" or "to sweat (out)". An innocent but curious boy might then puzzle over why anyone would name a camp that.

    Yeah, sometimes it's the nits that get picked, but the smallest things can become the biggest irritations.

  11. Thank you for helping me take a book off my TBR pile. That doesn't happen very often.

  12. To me, the point was the essential sameness of humanity, and the futility of prejudice. Because of Bruno's ignorance, he doesn't realize that the people on the other side of the fence are Jews, so he treats Shmuel more or less as an equal. But the real kicker is the end, of course, when Bruno dons the striped pajamas and the Nazi guards assume he's just another Jew. So it seems to me that the lesson is really for the grown-ups in the story -- Bruno's parents, for example. If their own son can be mistaken for and killed as a Jew simply because of his clothing, then the notion of aryan superiority is a big fat sham, isn't it? But they don't even learn that lesson, because from their perspective Bruno simply disappears.

    I think that's what makes this a throw-it-against-the-wall book for so many folks. Because of the grown-up characters' stupidity, the ignorant kid pays the ultimate price, and readers of any age don't tend to appreciate it when the main character dies for no good reason. Ok, I can see the parallel with the overall message of the story -- multiply your feelings about Bruno's death by 6,000,000 and that's how we ought to feel about the Holocaust, right?

    What troubles me most about this book may be the lack of hope at the end. According to Katherine Paterson, a hopeful final note is one of the hallmarks of children's literature -- even if things don't turn out well, there's at least the possibility floating out there of change for the better. At the conclusion of Boy in the Striped Pajamas, nobody seems to have learned anything, or changed in any way. The reader is left feeling mad, or sad, or in some cases just plain irritated, but *not* empowered in any way, and certainly not with a sense that they can emulate the characters to create a force for change. Bruno treated a Jewish boy like anybody else, and what's his reward? Death. Ouch.

    I think that lack of hope at the end is what makes me question whether this is really an appropriate book for children. I know kids need to realize that real life isn't fair, and I'm not saying every kids' book should make you feel all bright and sunshiny at the end, but leaving a young audience with not much more than futility and powerlessness in the face of adult prejudice makes me uncomfortable.

  13. Ah' I love it. John Boyne didn't really point out the moral or the point. I guess he thought it was obvious and to some it might have been then again maybe it's not the point at all. But what I got out of it had nothing to do with the Holocaust at all. It has to do with the fence. The fence at the heart of the story. How to overcome the fence. And even though things maybe different on the othet side of the fence to get used to it, maybe even learn to enjoy the other side of the fence, else the fence will always exist. The fence. That was the point. Maybe im wrong, but thats what I got out of it. But I am only 14 and i'm reading it for a summer project so correct me if you think im wrong.

  14. Thanks for the comments. I haven't read the book. My student told half of the story and she'll continue tomorrow. I was looking for a review and thought this was one of the best sites about it.I agree with some parts of everyone's comment. I think the book is a bit like "The Painted Bird" which I read 28 years ago. I forgot the author of the book but I think his purpose might be similar to Mr. John Boyne's if the point is to make readers aware of our tendency to treat people according to color, race, nationality, wealth, credentials, position, clothes, etc. instead of just being humane to humans.

  15. I am absolutely in love with this book and movie, it got my attention right away, and kept me intreged, it was so sad which is what i dont like about it, but its real and amazing, left me with chills and a sad feeling inside to think that things like that actually happened!
    its discusting personally, amazing story!