Young Bruno is upset when his family is uprooted from their comfortable Berlin townhouse and forced to live in the featureless Outwith. Throughout the months they spend there, Bruno applies his innocent logic to his dealings with the bullying young lieutenant, an elderly servant, and in particular with Shmuel. Shmuel is a boy his own age who lives on the other side of the big metal fence, and who wears the same striped pyjamas as the others over there. His sister, three years older, is more knowledgeable but accepts her parents’ view that those on the other side of the fence are somehow not to be treated as human. Right until the tragic ending, however, Bruno innocently accepts Shmuel as he would any other boy in his neighbourhood.
Bruno operates at the level of a small boy but he has a well-defined code of behaviour and of honour. His upbringing in Berlin has left him knowing that certain things – interrupting his mother, entering his father’s study and calling people stupid – are entirely forbidden. But he’s willing to overcome his training when he feels it’s really necessary. After he takes a spill from a rope swing which he’s built by himself, Bruno forms a secret bond with the elderly servant who waits on his family and discovers that the man used to be a doctor. He’s subsequently horrified by the actions of the arrogant young lieutenant when this servant accidentally drops the wine he’s pouring. And he’s appalled at himself when he lies about Shmuel to save himself. It’s a mark of the quality of each of the boys that, when they next meet, Bruno apologises fulsomely and Shmuel accepts the apology gracefully in spite of what he endured as a result of Bruno’s actions.
Bruno’s father is a fairly distant figure throughout, eager to rise in the military. He seems wholly indifferent to the plight of the prisoners in the camp he commands and fails to explain to his son’s satisfaction the situation they’re in. When tragedy strikes, his figure is diminished and made far more human, a final warning perhaps that no matter how much we may view history in terms of national movements and societal shifts, it is individual men and women, boys and girls, who are the heart of every human endeavour.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.