This year’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz has certainly brought the holocaust into sharper focus once again.
But I guess it’s a subject matter that never goes away,’ says John Boyne, author of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which comes to Chichester Festival Theatre from February 19-28 in a new adaptation by Angus Jackson and directed by Joe Murphy.
‘There will always be people thinking about it, writing about it,’ John says, ‘and I have certainly met many survivors along the way. The book came out in 2006, and I guess it’s the old line that we must never forget.’
Set during World War Two, the story is seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a concentration camp, whose forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp fence has startling and devastating consequences.
Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel takes him from innocence to revelation; through a child’s eye everyone can appear the same.
‘The whole thing started for me with a very simple image in my head, just two boys sitting either side of a fence talking to each other. I immediately knew who they were. One was going to be a Jewish boy, and the other the son of the commandant of a concentration camp.
‘I had been almost obsessed with the subject for many years. I had fully educated myself on the subject, not with a view to writing anything about it necessarily, but just through interest. Unlike other books I have written, this was something that was just there.’
Crucially, John subtitled the book “a fable”. ‘I was very deliberate about that. I knew I was going to be changing various aspects of the camps. I didn’t want it to be based on a particular true story. I needed the freedom to change aspects when I needed to so as to get to the deeper, more important truth of death and what was happening.’
Critics have commented on the unlikeliness of the friendship, which for John is to miss the point. ‘There are a lot of people that don’t like the book. They come back to it being unlikely, but I think that is ridiculous. I work in fiction. I am not saying that it happened. Is it probable it could have happened? Well, no. Is it possible it could have happened? Yes.
‘Is the book saying something important about an historical event or is it just cynical exploitation? If people think the former, then great. If people think the latter, then that’s for them.’
The book struck a chord straight away on its release. ‘It was pretty quick. It was very unexpected. I had published four novels before it, none of which particularly set the world on fire. When this came out, it was in the top ten in the first week. When the proofs went out, there was already a lot of interest in it, and newspapers had picked up the interest too.’
Originally, with children at the centre of it, it was published as a young person’s book; the adult edition soon followed when it was clear the interest would transcend age limitations.
‘I had actually already sold the film rights before the book was published. It started shooting within 18 months of publication, and as soon as it was published things were starting.’
John remained close to the production of the film and was delighted with the result: ‘I am really, really happy with the film. It was faithful to the book, but also faithful to itself. Film is a very different thing, and you do have to adapt to film.’
John has been less involved with the preparation of the play, partly because he has moved on to other things since. ‘In a way, the play has been a bit of a long time coming. We have had a lot of interest in doing a play, but it has been tied up with various rights with the film company. That got sorted out, and we were able to do it. Because the book has got so few characters and so few locations, it almost feels as if it were more suited to be a play anyway.’
Chichester will see its first performance, the latest chapter in a remarkable success.
‘In my career and in my creative life, this story has been an incredible gift, and it is great it is reaching new audiences and young people. I am hoping it will be chilling on stage and people will connect with the children.’
Born in Dublin, John Boyne studied English Literature at Trinity College, and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where he was awarded the Curtis Brown prize.
His early writing consisted mostly of short stories and the first one published, The Entertainments Jar, was shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award in Ireland.
He has published nine novels for adults, including The Thief of Time (2000), Crippen (2004), Mutiny on the Bounty (2008), The Absolutist (2011), and, his most recent, A History of Loneliness (2014).