Monday, May 22, 2006

on "the boy in the striped pyjamas"

I tried describing John Boyne's The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (spoilers in link) to a friend as we sat on Carter Road, watching the scads of kids that passed us by on dear little unsteady legs, shooting us bold and curious glances. We talked a bit about how much we like kids - why is it impossible, as an adult, to say that without irony? - and he talked about unstudied body language and how interesting it might be to do a drama workshop - he does some theatre (but is unfortunately not the delectable Rehaan Engineer) - with children.

What makes us treat children like a different species? The more I think about it, the more it seems that we objectify this vital component of human society almost indiscriminately. What makes us treat them the way we do? Anxiety, I suppose. And the fact that we have very short memories. It irritated me as I was reading "The Boy...," this constant but near-inescapable tendency to talk down to children, hoping to simplify things.

But I'm not about to start on the question of how to write a good children's book, or a good book about children for adults to read. I guess I'll never know, as my childhood was spent in a glut of Enid Blyton stories, Tinkle comics and other generally unworthy literature. As for "The Boy," the necessity of John Boyne's 'talking-down,' more unwieldy and overt than other masters of the patronising tone (see Tolkien) was, in a literary sense, difficult to deal with. And that was hardly the only thing difficult to stomach.

- some, inevitable sort of spoilers ahead -

This book is a fable about a nine-year-old whose father is transferred to a lonely outback of something that may or may not be the 'countryside'. Nothing moves or grows outside young Bruno's house. But if he peers outside his bedroom window, he can see, at some distance, a fence. One day, in his desire to be an Explorer, he sets off to walk down to the fence. And on the other side he meets another nine year old called Schmuel, the boy who wears striped pyjamas.

For those to whom the setting of this fable is immediately apparent (and note: I thought the dust jacket was an extremely powerful and striking cover), there may come the feeling that something is lost because of our foreknowledge. Yet the book is not about our discovery of the truth of the fence and tiny, sad-eyed Schmuel. It is about Bruno's journey into the heart of the matter with all the directness and affection of a child. Bruno is Everychild, in a sense. He lives in the midst of insane evil and horror and manages to retain his innocence throughout, and what protects him, I think, is one of those few characteristics universally applicable to children: self-involvement. His growing acquaintance with the realities of Schmuel's world are offset by his own preoccupations with the people at home, the obstructions, the anxieties, and the hunger of his own little cocoon.

But is it moving? Is it complex? Does it relentlessly, almost starkly, pursue the tragedy of innocence, or parochialism, or whatever you choose to read it as? Yes, yes, of course it does. The Bruno in the book is not a boy in a journey of self-realisation. He never grows up. He never sees the whole picture. Even the adults in the book seem to have no chance at redemption in spite of Bruno (and Schmuel)'s last journey. That is the tragedy. There is no pity, and no poetry.

As a caution, the inevitable feeling of being manipulated will occur in the reading of this story, regardless of whether you believe Bruno's world is the sort to which fiction cannot do justice, or the easy presumption that the facts will not be questioned irks you.


MellowDrama said...

Nice review, have you read the curious incident of the dog in the night time? And I couldn't agree with you more...I write for kids, you cannot talk down to em..ever. Simplification is the key word minus the patronising attitude. Btw I think Roald Dahl (his books for kids)had the formula down pat

Anil P said...

Maybe it's now time to revisit childhood favourites.

I suppose the lack of exposure meant that one didn't see the end of the story coming, and that kept alive the thrill.