This book is powerful because of what it does not say.
This a Holocaust story from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, son of the commandant of Auschwitz (‘Out-With’). He has no one to play with at Out-With, so he begins to talk with a boy on the other side of the fence (in striped pajamas) – Shmuel. No one ever gives Bruno time of day or explains anything to him, so he doesn’t know anything about what’s happening around him. But we do.
In a clever narrative device, the narrator describes things from Bruno’s perspective – resulting in the reader knowing more about what’s happening to Bruno than Bruno knows about what’s happening to Bruno.
It’s really rather brilliant.
Like this paragraph: ‘Heil Hitler,’ he said, which, he presumed, was another way of saying, ‘Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.’ (54)
Or the irony when Bruno wants to come inside the concentration camp (though that phrase is never used) because there are other children to play with. Shmuel, inside the camp, says, ‘You’re on the wrong side of the fence, though.’ (132)
Or when Bruno asks his sister why the fence is even there: ‘I don’t understand why we’re not allowed on the other side of it. What’s so wrong with us that we can’t go over there and play?’ (181)
This innocence and complete misunderstanding is what makes the book so powerful.
Other things to love:
- Re-considering “fair” and “unfair”: ‘It’s so unfair,’ said Bruno. ‘I don’t see why I have to be stuck over here on this side of the fence where there’s no one to talk to and no one to play with and you get to have dozens of friends and are probably playing for hours every day.’ (110-111)
- Repetition of particular phrases, like how Father’s office is Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions, and Bruno’s sister, Gretel, is a “Hopeless Case.”
- Understatement: (Shmuel): ‘The soldiers don’t normally like people getting better… It usually works the other way round.’ (139)
- Asking important questions that sometimes only children are innocent (read: un-brainwashed) enough to ask: “What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms? …it’s funny that when you think of all the times the soldiers go over there – and he had even seen Father go over there on many occasions – that none of them had ever been invited back to the house.” (100-101)
- A Grandmother who has her head screwed on straight (Chapter 5).
- Catching adults between what they say and what they mean: (Father, considering sending his children back to Berlin): ‘Perhaps this is not a place for children.’ ‘There are hundreds of children here,’ said Bruno… ‘Only they’re on the other side of the fence.’ (Of course, what Father really meant was, ‘This isn’t a place for my children.’ (191)
- Reminiscence of the movie Hook: ‘I want to go home,’ said Bruno.… ‘You need to realize that you are at home,’ [Father] said. (48)
- The gradual discrediting of Father – near the beginning, he says to Bruno of the people on the other side of the fence, ‘You shouldn’t be worried about them right now. They’re nothing to do with you. You have nothing whatsoever in common with them.’ (53) Bruno learns just how much he can have in common with one of them – sharing a birthday, being taken from their homes, being lonely, and even shaved heads with Shmuel.
Aside from the overall brilliance of the approach and the writing itself, one of the things I like so much about this book is its portrayal of the nature of people. We are so quick to want to categorize people into “good” and “bad,” looking for the flawless hero or the evil villain, when in reality… pretty much everyone, real or fictional, falls somewhere in between.
This was most obvious to me in the character of Father, who, while being a commandant of a death camp and treating Jews horrendously, gave their maid Maria her job because her mother had been a good seamstress and close friend to his mother. She sees so much kindness in him from that one action.
But there are others – Gretel, who is alternately mean sister and confidant. Eva, who is Hitler’s mistress but so nice to the children. Even Bruno himself, who is a sympathetic and lovable protagonist, but he is appalled at the cruelty he finds within himself at his betrayal of a friend.
Anyone who’s read this before, did you see the end coming within a few chapters of it? I sure did… not in a bad way, though. I found it suitable. What did you think?