Tuesday 24 October 2017

Books: Harrowing tale of the boy who worked for Hitler

Young adult: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, John Boyne, Doubleday, hdbk, 224 pages, €19.50

Mountain top: Adolf Hitler at Eagle's Nest, Obersalzberg, a place he used as a retreat to entertain friends and dignitaries.
Mountain top: Adolf Hitler at Eagle's Nest, Obersalzberg, a place he used as a retreat to entertain friends and dignitaries.
A scene from The Boy in Striped Pyjamas
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

David Robbins

The author of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' is back on familiar ground with his new novel for young adults.

It is almost 10 years since the publication of John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The simply told story of boyhood friendship across the barbed wire of the Auschwitz death camp sold six million copies worldwide and was made into a movie in 2008.

The book took many Irish readers by surprise. Boyne, who grew up and still lives in Dublin, bypassed the usual apparatus of Irish publishing. He did not set his novels in Ireland, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an international success before it was an Irish one.

Indeed, Boyne did not tackle an Irish theme until last year, when his A History of Loneliness provided a searing, angry account of the impact of clerical sexual abuse.

It is probably fair to say that Boyne's adult novels are less well known that his books for young adults. This is not because the grown-up ones are worse - they aren't - it's just that the huge success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas created a market for his young adult fiction.

In his new book for young adults, Boyne returns to the World War II setting of his earlier success. Once again, we are given a view of the German psyche during the Hitler years, this time through the eyes of Pierrot, son of a German father and French mother, who lives in Paris in the 1930s.

Pierrot's Parisian life is beautifully set forth. There is a sureness and a simplicity to the writing that is very impressive. In places, the work reminded me of the writing of Eva Ibbotson, who tackles similar war-related themes in The Dragonfly Pool and The Morning Gift.

There is a sense that tragedy is menacing Pierrot; soon he is left an orphan and is sent to an orphanage near Orléans. Here, too, the setting is beautifully achieved, and I wanted to read more of the characters in this passage: the two sisters who run the orphanage, the girl who befriends Pierrot, the boy who bullies him.

But out of the blue, Pierrot's aunt claims him and he is sent, with the names of the stations where he must change trains pinned to his jacket, to deepest Germany. Aunt Beatrix is housekeeper to a very important man who lives in the Bavarian Alps on the border with Austria.

For adult readers, the setting of the book, the mention of the Berghof, the nearby village of Berchtesgaden and the name of the Obersaltzberg mountain will lead to the inevitable deduction that "the master" is Adolf Hitler. For younger readers, the "reveal" is well managed.

Hitler takes a liking to Pierrot, whose name is changed to Pieter to make him sound more German. At first, Pierrot questions and resists the abandonment of his French past and the adoption of a purely Germanic persona. But soon, he falls completely under the spell of the Führer.

Here, Boyne takes a risk, for his main character becomes a thoroughly unlikeable boy, reveling in the power his new Hitlerjugend uniform and his association with Hitler give him. He betrays the people who have loved and helped him as he unquestioningly adopts Nazi attitudes and behaviours.

Pierrot's Nazi-fication is set against the resistance shown by other characters: his aunt, the chauffeur, the girl Pierrot likes in the village. These characters subtly undermine the Nazi certainties of Pierrot.

There are some predictable elements to The Boy at the Top of the Mountain: the obligatory Jewish friend, the kind cook, the coming and going of prominent Nazis. Even Leni Riefenstahl makes an appearance. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor come to pay homage and most of the dramatis personae of World War II are name-checked. (Rommel is an exception).

Sometimes, the Nazis are like cartoon bad guys. One, in his jackboots and greatcoat, accidentally bumps into Pierrot on a train platform, knocking him down. He proceeds to stand on Pierrot's hand and grind his fingers into the ground. It seems a little forced, especially as the Nazis were sentimentalists when it came to children and animals.

And it may be that some readers will object to the shocking historical subject matter in a work for young adults. Certainly, many did when they read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Are the Holocaust and the Nazi "experiment" suitable subjects for young adult fiction?

It depends on how they are handled. In The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, Boyne has delivered a powerful account of how one boy was seduced by Hitler and Nazism and paid the price. The final pages, in which he meets the Jewish friend of his boyhood and seeks redemption, are very moving.

Younger readers will lament the corruption of Pierrot; older ones will perceive what Boyne is trying to tell us: if this could happen to Pierrot, it could happen to us.

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