The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne

A terrible truth beyond the wire
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The Independent Culture

In the summer of 1943 a nine-year-old boy moves from his comfortable life in Berlin to Poland, where his father has an important new job. Bored and resentful, Bruno wonders why there are no windows on one side of his house. Why too is he forbidden from visiting something outside only referred to as "the fence"?

Curiosity will out, and one day Bruno steals from his house and comes across Shmuel, dressed in what look like pyjamas. They talk through the barbed wire that separates them and become friends. When he hears he is returning to Berlin, Bruno decides to burrow under the fence to join Shmuel for the first and only time before making his farewells. Mistaken for an inmate, since his own head is also shaven following an attack of headlice, he is marched off with his friend plus many others to a long room, surprisingly warm. Neither is ever seen again.

Bruno's father in some ways resembles the real-life Franz Stangl, the Austrian policeman turned camp commander who stayed devoted to his wife and children while supervising the deaths of 900,000 inmates at Treblinka. As described in Gita Sereny's superb Into that Darkness, Stangl was a good family man, merely getting on with a job. Bruno's father, although also fond of his children, is a more obviously flawed figure.

As much a parable as a realistic story, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is principally concerned with telling its tale, leaving the subtleties of how outsize evil can co-exist with domestic tranquillity for another day. Bruno, too, is more innocent than seems likely, oblivious to the truth of what he witnesses. Is he that gullible, or fooling himself? John Boyne, who has written previously only for adults, never goes into such issues.

There are a number of books accessible to children featuring aspects of the Holocaust, from picture books such as Roberto Innocenti's unforgettable Rose Blanche to various teenage novels. This novel is a fine addition to a once taboo area of history, at least where children's literature is concerned. It provides an account of a dreadful episode short on actual horror but packed with overtones that remain in the imagination. Plainly and sometimes archly written, it stays just ahead of its readers before delivering its killer punch in the final pages.