Friday, August 1, 2014

This Is Not Historical Fiction: History As Art



Every time I finish a book, I read the reviews to see how other readers responded to that book. Occasionally, I’m surprised by reviews. The reviewers point out something that I hadn’t noticed or make me think about something in a different way.

The reviews that surprised me recently were the reviews of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. When I read this book, I didn’t realize that it was controversial. If you haven’t read it (and you should), I will provide a summary, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so this blog post might not make much sense if you haven’t read the book.

Berlin 1942.

When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion, and the family must move from their home to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

On the surface, this book seems like a typical WWII novel. Bruno, a German boy, becomes friends with a Jewish boy from Poland. If you're familiar with WWII novels, you probably know how this story ends. (Hint: It’s not happy). However, this is not a typical WWII novel, and that’s where some of the controversy happens.

The novel is set during WWII, but it’s not historical fiction. It’s a modern fable. A fable is a story that incorporates elements of myth and has a strong moral. Ideally, the moral of a fable should transcend time and culture. It should apply to everybody everywhere.

It was immediately clear to me that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable and not historical fiction. The author tells the story from a third-person true-omniscient viewpoint, which is very common in fables and old literature but relatively uncommon in modern literature. The narrator is god-like and can see into the heads of all of the characters at the same time. Like any good fable, the moral of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is clear: All people are equal. The story also has a mythical quality to it. It’s the kind of story that people might tell each other about WWII, but it’s not a story that could have actually happened.

The author uses a few techniques to transcend time and culture in this fable. For example, he never uses the name of the camp where Bruno’s friend lives. He uses wordplay that would work in English but not in German (such as Bruno saying “Fury” instead of “F├╝hrer”). And, the book is not historically accurate. In fact, it’s so historically inaccurate that the events in the story probably could not have happened during WWII. There is a good reason for all of this: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not about WWII. It’s a fable. It’s about everyone everywhere. Discrimination and genocide did not stop after WWII. It’s still happening today, and that’s the point of this book. It’s a universal story. This book could be set almost anywhere and at almost any time in human history.

So, where is the controversy? I read a few reviews by people who said that this book is offensive because it ignores historical fact, and ignoring historical fact trivializes the experiences of the real people who lived through that historical period.

It didn’t cross my mind to be offended by this book. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t. To me, this book is not historical fiction, so I didn’t care if it was historically accurate. I saw this book as art. The best artwork is controversial, sparks passionate responses, and makes people think. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does that. I like the book for its artistic value. It’s odd, interesting, and unique.

But, I want to know what other people think. If you read the book, how did you react? How do you define “historical fiction”? Is it ever okay to ignore historical fact when you’re writing fiction? Is it okay to use history as a backdrop for art?   

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