Sentences — October 29, 2008, 3:55 pm

Simulated Ignorance

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2015

The Joke

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abolish High School

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beat Reporter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going It Alone

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rotten Ice

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Life After Guantánamo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
Photograph by the author
Article
Rotten Ice·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, ‘Imaqa.’ Maybe.”
Photograph © Kari Medig
Article
Life After Guantánamo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’ve seen the hell and I’m still in the beginning of my life.”
Illustration by Caroline Gamon
Article
Going It Alone·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness.”
Photograph by Richard Misrach
Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Acreage of a Christian nudist colony under development in Florida:

240

Florida’s wildlife officials decided to remove the manatee, which has a mild taste that readily adapts to recipes for beef, from the state’s endangered-species list.

A 64-year-old mother and her 44-year-old son were arrested for running a gang that stole more than $100,000 worth of toothbrushes from Publix, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS stores in Florida.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today