The iconic detective from the Agatha Christie novels, Hercule Poirot is back in the new trailer for 'A Haunting In Venice', with veteran English actor Kenneth Branagh once again donning the costume of the famous detective. The trailer true to its title is a haunting and creepy one, as Poirot takes up a chilling case about a supernatural mystery involving a seance gone wrong.
John Boyne stands out as one of the highly accomplished and widely praised novelists in his generation. Over a career spanning more than three decades, he has authored 15 novels targeted at adults, six novels for a younger audience, and a collection of short stories. His renowned work, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, has attained the status of a modern classic and holds the distinction of being the top-selling novel globally by an Irish writer since record-keeping commenced.
“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” is a poignant novel that unfolds against the backdrop of World War II and the Holocaust. The story revolves around nine-year-old Bruno, the son of a Nazi commandant, who moves with his family from their home in Berlin to a desolate area near a concentration camp. Unaware of the true nature of the camp, Bruno befriends a Jewish boy named Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the fence in ‘striped pyjamas’. The novel explores the innocence of childhood, the impact of prejudice and the tragic consequences of war. As the two boys develop a forbidden friendship, the narrative skillfully navigates the complexities of human connections and the stark realities of historical atrocities. The novel’s powerful conclusion leaves readers with a profound reflection on the consequences of hatred and the importance of empathy in the face of unimaginable circumstances.
John Boyne sat in an exclusive conversation with The Statesman at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet this year.
Excerpts are as follows:
Q. What motivated you to explore the Holocaust in your book and how did your approach to writing about young people contribute to the distinctive narrative of the book?
The novel had a profound impact on my life. Initially, I didn’t see the book as a Holocaust novel but rather as a tale centred on friendship, childhood and innocence. Despite my longstanding interest in the Holocaust from my teenage years, I didn’t expect the book to serve as a historical document. Having never read books for young people prior, I believe this unfamiliarity worked in the book’s favour. Approaching it with a slightly naive perspective, I was unaware of established rules in young people’s literature, allowing me the freedom to break them. Looking back, this unconventional approach proved advantageous.
Q. “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” explores the impact of war on innocence. He is a nine-year-old child who refers to Auschwitz as “Out-With” and The Fuhrer as “The Fury”. His comprehension of the events unfolding around him is limited, and he struggles to grasp the gravity of the situation. How does the innocence of Bruno’s viewpoint serve to highlight the brutality and dehumanisation inherent in war?
For me, it was about the fact that because the Holocaust has been written about so much, you have to find a fresh way into it if you’re going to tell an original story. The naivety and innocence of the child who, like him, has grown up in a house where there has always been uniforms, leading them to refrain from asking any questions. I think that’s one of the reasons why the book has worked so well. The friendship in the book is based on just pure innocence – children being just children.
Q. The Holocaust was a tragic historical event. In the concluding section of the book, Bruno slips through the wires and enters the concentration camp. However, historically, those wires were electrified. How do you balance the need for historical accuracy with the emotional impact of the story, especially when dealing with children’s innocence and the horrors of war?
That’s the reason it’s a fable. You don’t have to be accurate. You’re looking for an emotional truth, rather than facts and facts only. If you expect books to adhere strictly to historical accuracy, that takes away the point of them being fiction.
Q. Bruno’s family represents a microcosm of society during wartime. How do the characters in the novel reflect the various attitudes and responses of individuals and families caught in the midst of conflict?
The one difference is Bruno’s grandmother who is the one voice of reason in the German side of the book. She is not frightened to say anything. She is old and tough enough. That’s about the people who had courage and there were such people although not many. The other side, where there is Bruno’s father, they are true believers; they believe in what they are doing, no matter how wrong. They’re doing it not just because they are following orders, they actually want to wipe out the Jews.
Q. Wars often result in the displacement of people, as seen in the novel. How does the story contribute to discussions about the refugee experience and the impact of war on displaced populations?
“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” doesn’t go into that path. The second book, “All the Broken Places”, which was a sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, had a little bit more information about what happened to Gretel and their mother when they went to Paris after the end of the war. The novel explores guilt, complicity and grief, aiming to delve into the extent of responsibility a young individual bears amidst the historical events surrounding them. The book questions whether such a person can ever cleanse themselves from the actions of those they loved.
Q. What are your views in the context of ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises in the world?
Well, obviously, any genocide is wrong. Diplomatic measures should always be taken to try to find peaceful ends to these situations. It’s always the very innocent people who get caught up in these and lose their lives, and often, they are only children.