- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Recently, a friend received a novel as a gift. “You must read this book!” the giver said. My friend read the book. Her report to me: Wow, what a bad book.
We talked about the book, my friend and I. She summarized the plot: told in the third person from the point of view of a young boy during World War II, the novel explores a child’s friendship with another child. The first child, Bruno, is German; the second, Shmuel, is Jewish. Their friendship takes place across a barbed-wire fence, Bruno on the outside, Shmuel on the inside. Bruno wonders why Shmuel–and all the people on his side of the fence–wear “striped pajamas.” Bruno, we come to understand, is a Nazi commandant’s son. They live next to where he works: Auschwitz, whereto Shmuel and his family have been interned.
Following the coincidence of several elements–a case of lice that gets Bruno’s head shaved; a death-camp fence that a child can lift at the bottom and squeeze beneath; an extra pair of “pajamas” that Bruno can wear–Bruno sneaks into the camp so that he and his now deeply cherished friend can play together without the fence between them. Into the camp sneaks Bruno in “pajamas,” and quickly he and Shmuel are caught, and marched off together to a gas chamber. Bruno, unaware that they’re in danger, dies cheerily holding his best friend’s hand. Soon after, Bruno’s father, the Nazi commandant, looks for, but cannot find, his son. And then he discovers the clothes that Bruno abandoned when donning the extra set of “pajamas”, and understands what must have happened.
I cannot and will not judge a book I have not read. What I can say, and what my friend and I did discuss, is the nature of this novel’s animating idea. The general idea behind the book was to find a new way to tell the story of one of the most significant horrors of the Second World War and of recorded history, but through the eyes of a child. Naturally, that idea is nothing new, as readers of The Tin Drum know. What is new, though, is how this particular author shaped this particular story, and what that shape means. In the guise of telling, anew, the story of the liquidation of 6,000,000 Jews by the Nazis, the author tells the story of how an innocent German child–a high-level Nazi’s son–is mistaken for a Jewish child and pays the ultimate price for that mistake.
The book is called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by an Irishman named John Boyne. Interestingly, and after our discussion, my friend and I discovered, via the Google, that this 200 page novel is not meant for adult readers. Rather, it is a young-adult novel for readers eleven and up. Setting aside as unimportant (and unknown) why my friend’s friend, an adult, said that my friend, also an adult, “must read this book!”, I will say is this:
The animating idea of such a book, whether for children or adults, is morally objectionable. To account with the death of 6,000,000 innocents, the author invents a fictional “innocent” whose ironic fate is meant to offer a poignant window onto actual mass murder. Why morally objectionable? It is not that I object to fictionalization of the factual. Rather, I object to the notion that the fake death of a fake German child–through a series of contrivances that guarantee his irony-drenched death–is put forward as a representative means for readers to empathize anew with real children and real adults who really died. How else, such a narrative strategy suggests, could one empathize with the gruesome abstraction 6,000,000 innocents but by the creation of an ironical “innocent”?
Here we see the limits of irony as a narrative strategy. ‘Irony’ comes from the Greek eir?neia meaning “simulated ignorance.” When irony gets used indiscriminately, you get stories that exhibit not simulated ignorance but actual ignorance. Wow, the child or adult in the aftermath of such a story is supposed to say, how ironic that an “innocent” German child gets mistaken for one of the “vermin” his father is working to kill. Mass murder, which demands that we look at it face on, gets ironized into the opposite of mass-murder: murder by mistake.
That the novel in question might justify such sleight of hand as a means by which a child might first imagine the unimaginable is exemplary of the most condescending and corrupt ideas of what fiction is. Fiction is not meant to make difficult facts less disturbing. Rather, as David Foster Wallace said in an interview, fiction is more properly meant to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” An idea like the one that animates Boyne’s novel can only comfort the comfortable.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has sold 3 million copies worldwide and will soon be a Miramax movie, just in time for Thanksgiving.
More from Wyatt Mason:
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD in 2011 for “furtive movements”:
The faces of Lego people were growing angrier.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature