I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that John Boyne’s book ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ is an international bestseller and an award winning film, I’ve not seen either. On the other hand, my three kids have seen both as it’s a set Year 7 text. They’ve all raved about it, and I’ve been meaning to get round to the book, so the fact John Boyne was speaking at Hay provided the perfect opportunity.
I’m still only about a quarter of the way through, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of John Boyne’s conversation with Hay Festival founder, Peter Florence. They began with a discussion of how important historical accuracy was to a novel that was also intended to be a fable. Boyne described how he wanted to write a historical story, without referring directly to the violence of the holocaust but in such a way that the truth is uncovered for the reader. He explained that geographical authenticity was less important to him than what happened to people. An example of this being that Bruno’s house would have actually been inside the fence, rather than on the outside. However, for narrative purposes, it is important a fence separates him from Shmuel.
The conversation moved on to the character of Bruno, who Florence described as naive, and Boyne felt was just innocent – someone who had no reason not to know what was going and had not yet thought through the issues. This has drawn some criticism – as some feel it is improbable that Bruno, aged 9, could be quite so ignorant. Boyne himself wondered out loud if he and his editor had got that right. His intent was to show the story unfolding through the eyes of a child who didn’t understand what he was seeing, that allows the audience to question and be his conscience. This allows Boyne to use narrative hints (such as Bruno’s description of Auschwitz as ‘Out-With’, the question of what sort of people don’t have baths?) so the reader is ahead of Bruno and knows what is going to happen. But should Bruno have in fact been more aware?
I think Boyne is right and the critics are unfair. Our parents are our first heroes. Bruno is from a loving family so it seems highly plausible to me that he would find it impossible to believe that his father is anything other than good. Secondly, the reality of the Holocaust was that many grown-ups didn’t see what was happening on their doorstep (or didn’t want to see it). Why is it so unlikely that a child fails to understand the truth, when so many grown ups were so ignorant? Thirdly, children believe what they are told, and if your father tells you other people are ‘non-persons’ who are you to argue? Finally, whilst we all like to think only bad people take part in these terrible historical events, the machinery of state killing is only possible because ordinary people participate in it unquestioningly. (A thought that reminded of my interview with Chris Woods earlier. It strikes me today’s US and UK drones programmes are full of good ordinary people who involved in a system that is killing people, because they believe they are doing the right thing for their countries).
Boyne also noted that whilst Bruno is basically a good person, he is capable of great selfishness. He often talks at Shmuel and is focussed on his own problems, rather than listening to his friend. When he takes food he eats some of it. When he betrays Shmuel he is sorry but also worries about being lonely. Again this seems very plausible – given that Bruno is a privileged child with loving parents and servants, it is entirely believable that his first thoughts are often about himself.
Although the book is about the horrors of the Holocaust, for Boyne it is ultimately about friendship.
The most important line in the book comes when Bruno and Shmuel are holding hands and say they are best friends for life. As dark and sad and honest as the book’s ending is, it does have this moment of beauty. Their friendship is stronger than the horror; it is they who they are cannot be beaten.
This is my last talk at Hay and it was a great one to go out on. It left me with lots to ponder and a wonderful book to take away.