Thursday, 29 January 2009

Striped pyjamas, book thieves and the meaning of life

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a little movie doing the rounds at present that many people say is very moving and a great story: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, based on John Boyne’s children’s “fable” of the same name, published in 2006 (DVD due out in March).
Still from the movie The Boy in the Striped PyjamasPeople seem to like the book too, because it’s sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. Apparently Boyne wrote it in just two and half days. If you’ve read the book and/or seen the movie you’ll know it’s about the encounter between a boy in a Nazi concentration camp and another boy, the son of the camp commandant (all seen from the latter’s point of view).  
Buchenwald concentration camp
At the risk of maddening the millions who have read/seen it – and loved it (including my wife) – it’s sentimental, naïve and superficial. Perhaps Boyne thought that a children’s book dealing with such a subject should be of this nature. I beg to differ: it cheapens and distorts the reality and true horror of the holocaust. It is also patently unrealistic – there is no way that this encounter could have happened in real life. For a start the fences in the concentration camps were often not single as depicted here (from the movie), but complex affairs with “no man’s land” between them – the example shown below is from the reconstruction at Buchenwald. In the cases where fences were single they were usually electrified, e.g. at Dachau.

I suppose one might argue that poetic licence can be taken in order that the story can be told. The problem I have with this, though, is that if the story distorts the truth to that extent, then artistic license has gone too far. Children (and even adults) reading this book as their first encounter of the horror of the holocaust will come away with a quite wrong impression of what the camps were really like. Oh, they’ll realise they were pretty horrific, but their perception will be as close to the reality as the Simpsons is to a true life family.

But the story needs to be told, doesn’t it? And if a “fable” like this can bring it home, surely that’s excuse enough to simplify and distort?  

Well, sorry, no, I disagree. And so, too, I think might Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief (2005). Here, too, is a book about the atrocities of the Nazis, published as a children’s book, and about the experience of a child in World War II Germany (though not, in this case, within a concentration camp). This book actually has a far greater “fantasy” element than The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (it’s narrated by Death), but the realism of the world is never glossed over, subjugated to making it “simple”.

For me, this is the better book by a very, very long way. Where Boyne’s book is naive (who can actually believe the young German boy is that blind and stupid?), Zusak’s is refined (his heroine is multi-dimensional – with good and bad in her – believable and thoroughly “real”). Where Boyne takes liberties with historical accuracy (e.g. see above on fences) Zusak’s is both a masterful historical reconstruction and is never “dry”.  Boyne’s characters are caricatures – from the sadistic young soldier, the posing daughter and barely believable boy, to the eponymous boy in pyjamas who isn’t really a character at all, just a cipher for the device of the book (I won’t spoil the end). And above all, where Zusak’s book triumphantly reveals both the good and the bad of the human character, and shows the ability we have for redemption, Boyne’s is a mere sketch with a trick ending that artfully jerks the tears but ultimately leaves us with no real understanding. I can believe he wrote it in two and a half days. It shows!

Why is this important? They’re only books, after all. Well for two reasons. Both authors set out to do a good thing (and Boyne must be held up and praised for that at least) – to try and bring to our attention some of the horror of our recent past, and show that although humanity is capable of real evil, so too is it capable of sacrifice and redemption. And these are important things to recall – especially the latter.

And secondly when one is dealing with these timeless issues, it’s incumbent upon the author make these universal truths applicable to one’s own life. Which brings me to “the meaning of life”. I doubt if Boyne has read Viktor Frankl’s timeless “Man's Search for Meaning” (1946) – if he had, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas might have been a far better book. Frankl’s book too, is (partly) about the holocaust. However it’s not a work of fiction – Dr Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps for three years and the first part of this book relates his experiences. But this is not like other holocaust survivor books (or the likes of “Schindler’s Ark”), it is a book that seeks to derive from the horror some sense of meaning, and from that to thence derive a universal sense of meaning. After all, if you can find meaning in suffering such as was experienced in the concentration camps, you can find meaning in any situation. The second part of the book (written some time later) is an explanation of his psychotherapeutic method, logotherapy, which stemmed from these musings. So Frankl writes

We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips” 
and also his conclusion about the meaning of life:

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual”.

Viktor Frankl
And this is ultimately why The Book Thief succeeds and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas fails. In the latter, one is left thinking “why?” without there being and answer, and also “but it’s not fair” without there being any resolution. It’s an empty book. Whilst The Book Thief triumphantly addresses Frankl’s question head on: in every situation that his heroine encounters trials and suffering (as well as in the few times of happiness) her way of living is to ask that question: “what does life want of me?” and to react in the most positive manner she can given the circumstance: whether it be to read to the frightened neighbours when they all go into the bomb shelter during an air raid, or to bring some meaning to the life of the mayor’s wife. Her journey is one of finding the best out of each situation. And therein lies the meaning of life itself.

Boyne, J. (2006) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Definitions, ISBN-13: 978-0099487821
Frankl, Viktor E. (1946) Man's Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust, Rider & Co, New edition (2004), ISBN-13: 978-1844132393
Keneally, T. (1982) Schindler's Ark, Sceptre, ISBN-13: 978-0340936290
Zusak, M. (2005) The Book Thief, Black Swan, ISBN-13: 978-0552773898

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