The first thing that comes to mind when one says ‘World War II’ is the Holocaust. The worst kind of genocide ever, the mere thought of it sends shivers down my spine. And after reading WWII stories like The Book Thief and All the Light We Cannot See which gave me different angles into how we look at the carnage that spread over 6 years, one would think I would have learnt my lesson and not picked another one like that.
But history has it that I have the propensity to go running after books like that. A masochistic tendency that one would call it. And this time, I pulled that tendency into active play and picked The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I came away with a bruised heart, if not a broken one.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is the story of Bruno, an inquisitive kid who loves exploring nooks and crannies around him. But one day, he returns home to find that they’re moving to a faraway place called Out-With, where his father, who works for the Fury (he can’t pronounce ‘Fuhrer’ or ‘Auschwitz’), has been asked to take up responsibility. From his bedroom in his new house, he can see people in striped uniforms lining up. He doesn’t have friends, so all he wants is to go over and meet those people and make some friends.
One day, he creeps out and makes his way to the tall fence that separates their house from the people in stripes. He walks along it and chances upon Shmuel – a boy who looks like an emaciated version of himself. They become fast friends but what will happen if Bruno’s parents or the guards find out? Will they find out? What does fate have in mind for these two boys and their unlikely friendship?
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has a simple narrative that justifies it being called a children’s book. But when it hits you hard, it hits you hard. And you just want to curl up in a ball and cry your eyes out and scream that it is not a children’s book.
Having said that, I didn’t think that the actual narrative was as impactful as I was expecting it to be. It was an easy read, language-wise, and it was perhaps to be expected, given the genre. Yet, it was only in the last few pages, when The Thing happened that I actually looked on in horror. There were some heavy questions shadowed by heartbreaking innocence, but there wasn’t a time when I thought that the narrative was simply amazing, even for metaphorical children’s fiction.
I didn’t think that in Nazi Germany, fences would have had loopholes, even small ones as described in this one. I also read a review of this book by a Holocaust survivor that was scathing about it because of its loopholes. It said that whatever fences were there, were all electric fences. Touching them would have guaranteed a person’s death. Then why did the author write that? And as the reviewer commented – why did he trivialize the pain by indicating that one could have escaped from the camp?
It was only after the end of the story that I sort of understood the author’s perspective.
An interview at the end of book asked the author this very question. To which the author admitted that he took some creative and literary liberties and mixed fact with fiction to bring us this masterpiece. And after this, in my opinion, everything is completely alright. Knowing that the author acknowledges the little differences as fiction makes it better for me, though I’m not completely on board with the significant changes in solid history.
Other than that. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas morphs from being a story about an innocent, clueless kid during World War II into a shocking end for the reader who, I assume, knows everything about what transpired. Heartbreaking, despite every narrative problem that plagues the story.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Picture Courtesy: Amazon India
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