1936: Seven-year-old Pierrot Fischer lives in Paris with his mother. His German father, a veteran of the Somme, left home three years earlier, never to return. Pierrot remembers him though: his screams as memories of the trenches haunted his nights; his drinking; and his conviction that one day his country would ‘take back what is ours’. When that day comes, he tells his son, he must remember he is ‘German through and through, just like me’.
1944: As the war, and this novel, draw to a close 15-year-old Pierrot is living in the Berghof, Hitler’s retreat in the mountains above Berchtesgaden. He is now a zealous Oberscharfuhrer in the Hitlerjugend. The Fuhrer’s long-serving cook, Emma, finds him in a quiet corner of the Berghof during a party, forcing himself upon a girl who is unable to fight him off. Emma knocks him to the floor, her carving knife at his throat. ‘What happened to you, Pierrot?’ she wonders. ‘You were such a sweet boy when you first came here. Is it really that easy for the innocent to be corrupted?’
A critical reader might well ask that last question of this novel. Defenders of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas dismissed charges of implausibility by seeing the book as a fable rather than a realistic narrative. A similar defence might be made here, but it would take some arguing.
The opening chapter is titled, ‘Three Red Spots on a Handkerchief’ and within a few pages Pierrot is an orphan. His best friend, Anshel Bronstein, lives with his mother in the apartment downstairs. The boys communicate through sign language since Anshel was born deaf. For a while, Anshel’s mother cares for Pierrot, but as life becomes increasingly difficult for her as a Jew in Paris, she reluctantly finds him a place at an orphanage in Orleans. After a few months there, Pierrot’s Aunt Beatrix sends for him – Mme Bronstein has tracked her down, though she has been out of touch for years. Pierrot, still aged seven, makes a ten hour rail journey across France and Germany to join his aunt. The trip is not without incident. Changing trains at Mannheim, he literally bumps into a German officer who, as Pierrot sprawls on the ground, grinds his jackboot into the boy’s fingers. He also encounters ferocious anti-semitism and en route to Munich he is bullied by an older boy in the uniform of the Hitlerjugend.
Aunt Beatrix, it turns out, is Hitler’s housekeeper at the Berghof, which is how Pierrot (soon renamed Pieter) meets Hitler in person, along with Eva Braun and Blondi, Hitler’s German Shepherd dog. Pierrot is never described as being intellectually exceptional, but by the age of seven he has seemingly read The Man in the Iron Mask and a year later he gets through Mein Kampf, though he struggles with Hitler’s gift of Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great. By the time he’s 11, he turns Aunt Beatrix out of her room so that he can enjoy more space for himself and sleep closer to the Fuhrer in case he’s needed. He is merely the nephew of the housekeeper but he says, ‘If you ask me, servants should just keep their mouths shut and get on with their work‘.
When he’s 13, he betrays his aunt and her lover, the chauffeur Ernst, thwarting their plot to poison Hitler with a slice of Christmas stollen. Ernst is an unconvincing assassin, since he reveals his anti-Nazi sympathies within minutes of meeting the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson as he drives them up the mountain to make that famous visit to Hitler (‘One is generally accustomed to a band of some sort,’ mumbles the Duke, disappointed by the lack of a welcoming fanfare.) Even more remarkably, Pieter is summoned by the Fuhrer to take the minutes of a meeting including Himmler and other officers, planning a new concentration camp. Pieter interrupts to check that he heard correctly that no water would be coming out of the showers. His notes are ready for use as the meeting closes.
Pieter is faithful to the promise demanded by his father. He is gullible and unquestioning – enabling Boyne to provide a perspective which differs sharply from conventional insights into the Reich. This may well interest young readers (though the age of the implied reader of this novel is an issue in itself … it’s simply told, the hero is under 10 for much of the book, but in relatively few pages he’s become a sexually frustrated adolescent). Boyne rarely takes us inside Pieter’s mind – a moment here and there, such as his shock as he watches the execution of his aunt and Ernst as a result of his revelations. Otherwise, there is little ambiguity or self-doubt. Only in the brief Epilogue, taking us well beyond the war, does the adult Pieter reflect, recognising the monster he became, prompting him to seek out his old friend, Anshel, now a novelist, to tell his story. It could be said that Pieter is a microcosm of what happened to a whole nation. But too often here, the characters seem to be at the service of the plot. As a consequence, Emma’s question, ‘Is it really that easy for the innocent to be corrupted?’ is worth exploration.