Tuesday, February 5, 2013
The Boy in the Completely Unresearched Pajamas
The book is told, mostly, from the point of view of Bruno, a nine year old boy in Nazi Germany. His father is a commandant marked for "great things" by Hitler personally. His family is forced to pack up and move to Auschwitz where he meets Schmuel, a boy that lives on the other side of the fence. In a work camp. Which Bruno has somehow never heard of. The two form a friendship, defying all odds and, for anyone who paid a modicum of attention in high school history class, logic.
I have three big complaints about this book. The least upsetting of which is the POV. Like I said earlier, is totally with Bruno, limited third person. Except when it's not. Like, when it suddenly jumps away from Bruno to let us know what his sister is thinking. Or Schmuel. Or the Nazi soldier. This is, like, some basic shit here. Yes, rules can be broken, but you really ought to do it well or with style. The POV shifting was so infrequent and random that it seemed jarring.
Slightly less annoying than that were the repetitive descriptions that only seemed to be there to pad the slight word count. I've seen repetition done well. Hell, one of my favorite writers does it all the time. But these were just... bleh. Unimportant. It added nothing and distracted me. For those counting, this is like a half issue.
Second, I'm not sure that John Boyne has ever met a nine year old kid. Bruno, the main character, is so naive... no, that word doesn't quite work. Bruno is so blind to everything going on around him that he doesn't even know what a Jew is. He doesn't know what the Star of David represents. Even though he gets a cold feeling in his stomach when he sees Aushwitz from his bedroom window, he still calls Schmuel lucky to be in there with friends because Bruno himself was forced to move away from his.
And what's with the "homophones"? He refers to the Fuhrer as the "Fury" and Auschwitz as "Out-With". I suppose that might be alright if the kid spoke English, but he doesn't. He speaks German and only German. He shows shock at Schmuel when he discovers his friend can also speak Polish. I looked up pronunciations (because I was so annoyed I just wanted to stop reading for a while), it would be "Aus-Mit". Not really as precious.
At nine, Bruno would be in his last year as a Pimpfe, the youngest sect of the Hitler Youth. He would have been indoctrinated to the beliefs. Which is my third and largest problem. A writer doesn't always have to give us the facts, but they should always tell the truth. As Alasdair tells us just before the tale begins, "I have a story for you. And I swear, it's absolutely true." And that's what's so absolutely awful about this book. This story is actually based on something that happened. It's one of the worst things that's ever happened in history and Boyne writes as though the whole of human knowledge isn't at his fingertips. Through Bruno, he tells a story in which a child can sit at the fence of a concentration camp. He can raise up the chain-link enough for someone to crawl under. A fence, that by all rights, should be electrified and patrolled by armed guards. Because it was. I know because I once, ten years ago, visited a Holocaust museum. If I were writing a book about the event, I would damn well do more research than that.
There's a word Boyne doesn't write. I'm pretty sure it's "kike". He literally interrupts the dialogue to explain in narration that it's a word Bruno does not know, but it sounds harsh. All three times it's said, the narration jumps in to stop the speaker. Later, when a prisoner accidentally spills wine on a soldier, the soldier-- I dunno-- does something that makes Bruno cry and his sister go pale. I assume he beat the prisoner, but we aren't told anything.
There's a Louis C.K. bit about "the N word". It boils down to, basically, when someone says "the N word", they're putting the word "nigger" in your head. They're making you think it. Making you say it, in your head. All it is is people communicating a word to you that they don't have the nerve to say themselves. Posting the video here, but be very warned, it has some seriously not-safe-for-work language.
The point of that is to say that I think Boyne does a severe injustice to his readers. He casts Auschwitz in a liar's light, making it seem less bad than it was. It's... infuriating.
Having ranted all that, I can see what he was trying to do. If you didn't understand what was happening, would let it keep happening like Bruno did? Schmuel and Bruno are meant mirrors of each other, always separated by the fence, by the glass. But the historical inaccuracies, the things that could have been fixed by spending five minutes on Wikipedia, make the whole thing ring hollow.
One out of five for what I consider to be a gross miscarriage of literary responsibility.