Bruno is a nine-year old boy who lives in Berlin with his mother, father and sister – the Hopeless Case as he likes to call her. One day when he comes back from school he is surprised to learn that the whole family is moving. In fact the reader understands that the father is a Nazi officer and soon realizes, once the family is there, that his new assignment is to be in charge of Auschwitz. After a while, Bruno, who has very little to do, decides to explore his surroundings and befriends another boy his age, Shmuel.
So as not to spoil the story for those willing to read the book I won’t mention how it ends. Suffice to say that it is not a happy ending.
This book is well-written, especially if you read it in English. I reckon that much is lost in translation. Bruno’s mistakes certainly are and I wonder how The Fury (Hitler) and Out-With (Auschwitz) can be rendered in other languages. In addition the language, which is often quite subtle, has a dinstinctingly English flavor; maybe too much so in fact considering the story is set within a German family.
Unfortunately this is not the book’s only flaw. Thus the narrative focuses on Bruno and the different events are seen through his eyes. The problem is that sometimes Bruno is extremely perceptive for a nine-year old – for instance when he becomes aware that the maid has a life of her own – and quite dense also – after a full year in their new house he stil doesn’t recognize that the people who live behind barbed wires are prisoners and he still can’t say the name of the place where he lives.
The book’s main weakness however is the total lack of historical reality. Children aged nine didn’t survive in Auschwitz; they were killed on arrival. What is even less credible is Shmuel’s lack of understanding of the dangerousness of Auschwitz; he is hungry, he is frightened and cautious but doesn’t seem to realize that the people who never come back after work have been killed.
I understand that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas wasn’t meant to be a realistic story but, because of the barbarity of the Holocaust, I find that choosing it as a background was a poor choice.