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Journalism of Courage

Irish novelist John Boyne on exploring old wounds in new settings in his novel ‘All The Broken Places’

A sequel to his 2006 bestselling children's novel 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' the new novel explores themes of guilt and complicity

Irish writer John Boyne, John Boyne, sequel 2006 bestselling novel 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', novel 'All The Broken Places', eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express newsIrish novelist John Boyne (Courtesy: Penguin Random House)
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Earlier this year, says Irish writer John Boyne, he took one of the best decisions of his life: he quit Twitter, where he had been relentlessly bullied over accusations of mis-representation in his YA novel, My Brother’s Name is Jessica (2019), that traces the coming-out of a teenager through his brother’s eyes, and found himself breathing easier. “You know, you never hear anybody say my life is so much better now that I am on Twitter. The lack of freedom of speech is just morally terrible. Who gets to decide what we are allowed to say and what we are not? We all make mistakes, but the demonisation of people is pretty horrendous,” says the 52-year-old, over a Zoom conversation, from his home in Dublin.

For as far as he can remember, and certainly long before his bestselling Holocaust novel for children, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was published in 2006, Boyne has been interested in questions of complicity, especially of ordinary people, in perpetuating injustices and oppressive regimes. “I think it probably goes back to my own country, and the fact that for so many people of my generation, there was a lot of child abuse in schools, and, at the hands of priests. When we look at that story now, what we realise is that so many people were aware of it and did nothing to prevent it from happening. That’s something that fascinates me. It’s not so much the criminals who commit these acts, but how others can stand by and allow them to take place and do nothing to stop it,” he says.

His latest novel for adults, All The Broken Places (Doubleday, Rs 699), explores the theme of expiation in the form of Gretel, the elder sister of Bruno, the nine-year-old German protagonist of The Boy…, whose unexpected friendship with a Jewish boy Shmuel, interred in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, leads him inadvertently into the gas chamber. The new novel takes off when Gretel is 91, leading a life of quiet anonymity in upscale London, never speaking of her past as the daughter of an influential Nazi commander or her own humiliation in post-War France. When a young family moves into the flat below, Gretel finds herself confronted with a difficult choice that would drag her back into the past she has finally managed to bury. “When I finished the first draft of The Boy…, I felt like I’d left this 12-year-old child slightly traumatised at the end of the book. I always felt I wanted to return to her and find out what her story would be. I thought I would write it much further down in my life. But when lockdown happened, it just seemed like the right time,” Boyne says.

All The Broken Places (Photo:

Even as the novel cuts across time between 1946 and 2022, mapping Gretel’s journey, Boyne says the schisms in the contemporary world often feel like an unpleasant throwback to the dark days of the past. “In recent years, when you look at America, particularly at the Trump years, there was something very Nuremberg about his rallies, and the authoritarian-ness, the willingness to put falsehood out in the world and present them as facts; the hatred and the bigotry that went along with that man. I’m the sort of person that thinks people are generally good. But when they get swept up in these kinds of movements, it does make you question humanity a bit. At the same time, you see the world’s response to something like the Ukraine war, there are moments of optimism as well,” he says.

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Since its release, The Boy… had been a runaway success, having sold about 11 million copies worldwide, and getting adapted into a movie, a ballet and an opera, but its critical reception, especially of Boyne’s portrayal of the Nazi camp and the reality of the anti-Semitic wave in pre-World War II Europe, have been tempered with caution over its historical inaccuracies. In 2020, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Memorial Museum tweeted that the novel “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches the history of the Holocaust”, in response to Boyne’s own tweet about the proliferation of Holocaust novels that did not treat the subject with due consideration. For someone invested in the human cost of the genocide, the accusation stung. “While I was disappointed by what the Auschwitz Memorial said, it needs to be remembered that what they specifically said was that the novel should not be used by those studying the Holocaust. But I didn’t write a school book or a textbook, I wrote a novel, a fable. I do feel that if teachers are using it in schools, it’s incumbent upon them to make sure that the students know that this is a fable, this isn’t exactly the way it happened. But at the same time, if by writing a book like this, it gets young people interested in the subject and gets them reading wider about it, and keeping those stories alive, to me that’s a good thing,” says the writer.

First published on: 09-12-2022 at 11:22 IST
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