The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an astonishing but ultimately improbable story
I raved about this book, and subsequent film, to an elegant, very wise Jewish lady survivor of the death camp Auschwitz (or as our nine-year-old narrator Bruno calls it, ‘Out-With’). She threw me a look of contempt, pulled up her sleeve and displayed her camp number: “This story would not have been possible in that place.”
I saw the film before I read the book – not always a wise thing to do – but the two melded together perfectly. On one level, the book is a child’s fable, on the other, it is a searing adult tragedy just waiting to happen.
As Bruno develops in his nine-year-old way, wanting to be a Great Explorer in this alien place where his father is now ‘Commandant’, he decides the starved and terrified Jewish boy Shmuel will be his new best friend. After all, he’d left his three best friends in Berlin and was lonely and bored.
They spend hours together talking on different sides of the camp fence. Bruno cannot understand why Shmuel and all the ‘farmers’ on the other side of the fence are so thin and beaten, and wonders why the men in the striped pyjamas are never invited to dinner like the German officers. He tries to bring food for Shmuel but more often than not eats the treats on his march to the fence.
The ending is almost too much. Bruno agrees to help Shmuel search the camp for his father who has ‘disappeared’. He slips under the wire, puts on the Explorer disguise of striped pyjamas and that is the last we hear of him.
Improbable or not, this is a wonderfully tender tale of real friendship, growing awareness and finally painful retribution. I urge you to read this marvellous little book.