Once again I get reminded how hard it must be to end a novel. John Boyne’s The Absolutist could have ended perfectly on page 292, and instead we get a “60 years later” that takes us to page 309. It’s not as useless as some codas, however, and either last line is haunting.

Boyne called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a fable, and while that book was heartbreaking, I can see how this one is more honest. If you’re a lover of character, this story of “the Great War” is for you. The first person narration is never hackneyed; the book asks and answers questions at the rate we want, never too quickly or too slowly. There’s a sympathy for the human condition that overrides all.

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Weekend Reading

March 16, 2009

I have figured it out. Infinite Jest is going to be a year-long project, because I keep on reading other things instead.

This weekend, those other things were John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Abraham Bolden’s Echoes from Dealey Plaza: the true story of the first African-American on the White House Secret Service detail and his quest for justice after the assassination of JFK. Oh, how I love working with hundreds of books a day…my reading list expands exponentially.

Anyway, Bolden first.  An autobiography about racism and incompetence encountered in the Secret Service.  After the assassination, Bolden spoke out about the lax standards he feels led directly to Kennedy’s death, and was then the target of a conspiracy himself. Charged with soliciting a bribe, he spent six years in prison (including being forced into a mental facility – they claimed he was paranoid and sociopathic) and even still the documents that could demonstrate his innocence can’t be found. It is a terrible, terrible history, and yet I couldn’t say I was shocked.  In fact, one of the most interesting things about the narrative is his description of his own loss of faith. Between Kennedy’s death and Nixon’s resignation, I think a lot of Americans changed their opinions about what their government and their countrymen were capable of. My generation inherited this attitude whole.

Anyway, if you’re interested in such things, it’s worth a read, even if Bolden isn’t one of those amazing, innate writers one finds every once in a long while.

I’m torn about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  I found it an incredibly heartwrenching story. Boyne writes, “In April 2004 an image came into my mind of two boys sitting on either side of a fence. I knew they had been taken away from their homes and friends and brought, separately, to a terrible place. Neither of them knew what they were doing there, but I did, and it was the story of these two boys, whom I named Bruno and Shmuel, that I wanted to tell.”

Mostly, though, it’s Bruno’s story. The narrative follows him along and is limited to his understanding. I found this poignant and effective; especially, for instance, in the way the book never actually names Auschwitz (“Out-With”), and other techniques like that.

But this is one of the main criticisms of the book – that this perspective wouldn’t have existed, at least not in this case. As the 9 year old son of an important Nazi commander, critics argue that Bruno wouldn’t have been so ignorant of the political, military and racial ideas surrounding him. They also argue that as a small 9 year old boy at Auschwitz, Shmuel wouldn’t have survived past arriving.

I understand the importance of these arguments. In a world where (God knows how) there can be confusion and disagreement and disbelief in the Holocaust, we don’t need more inaccuracy. But, by the same token, I have to respect Boyne’s right to write whatever story he wants, whatever story is true to him. And, in less historical ways, the story is true, as a story of friendship, and spirit, and learning. But…

It reminds me of a poem from Kay Ryan’s collection The Niagara River:

“In the wake of

horrible events

each act or word

is fortified with

added significance,

unabsorbable as

nutrients added

to the outside

of food: it can’t

do any good.

As if significance

weren’t burdensome

enough. Now

the wave-slapped

beach rocks not

just made to talk

but made to teach.”

I don’t know what to do with this problem.