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Book Review: The Boy in Striped Pyjamas

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

by John Boyne My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are very few books special in a way that can make you laugh and cry in the same reading session. This book is one of them. Humorous. Poignant. It brings out a chuckle at times. And at other times, tears. It wrenches your heart at the suffering that it outlines, and makes you smile in between at the silliness of the young protagonist. The plot basically revolves around Bruno, a nine-year-old boy. Against all his wishes, he is forced to move out with his father, away from his home and friends. After a few days though, he made an unlikely discovery at the most unlikely and forbidden place: another friend, Shmuel, with the same birth date as his, at the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. Only that he was on the wrong side of the fence. The story traces the growth of their friendship, Bruno’s eventual acceptance of being at Out-With, his adventures, along with something he wanted to do the most – explore. What makes this book different from other Holocaust books is that it is written from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy who is completely oblivious of the heinous horrors going around him. Although ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ was also penned by a very young Anne Frank, she was a few years older than Bruno when she wrote it, and had a mature and positive air in her writing. Whereas in this one, the protagonist exhibits an innocence bordering on outright ignorance of the war crimes unfolding right in his backyard. The best examples of this being the mispronunciations (Out-With for Auschwitz and The Fury for The Fuhrer). And that is exactly where lies the true charm of the book, standing in stark contrast against the dark backdrop. The questions he asks and the reasons he guesses for a particular event are funny and thought-provoking at the same time. The characters are amazingly portrayed with a mixture of both types of traits. Their good and bad qualities are observed quite honestly from Bruno’s unprejudiced eyes. They change and grow as real human beings do, be it Gretel’s change of attitude towards him, or Lieutenant Kotler feeling uneasy and vulnerable at the dinner table despite being so stern and dominant all the time. There are several symbols of great importance in the book that appear prominently throughout. Through Bruno’s simple and recurring observations, the author successfully highlights the deeper connotations. The color of the skin, for one, although it was not the basis for the discrimination. The color we are talking about here is pale and grey, like gloomy, similar to the sad fate of those who had them. The other prominent symbol is the uniform – the army uniform of the soldiers and the striped pyjamas for the Jews, and how the former is clean, stark and crisp as opposed to the latter which is muddy, shaggy and probably never washed. The next is Herr Liszt, Bruno’s home tutor who represents the Nazi outlook on education in which art and literature took a back seat. To sum up, I would say this is a remarkable story of an unbreakable friendship taking shape in the most turbulent time of Nazi-occupied Europe. A tale of exemplary kindness and humanity amidst the most unkind and inhumane nightmare of the 20th century.

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