(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.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
(Warning: spoilers ahead, including the end of the book)