Slip­pery slope leads to com­plic­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Boy at the Top of the Moun­tain By John Boyne Corgi, 215pp, $19.99 Diane Stub­bings is a Mel­bourne-based writer and critic.

Pier­rot Fis­cher lives in a Paris apart­ment with his par­ents. His mother, Em­i­lie, is French. His fa­ther, Wilhelm, is Ger­man. A vet­eran of the 1914-18 war, Wilhelm still suf­fers from the ex­pe­ri­ence. He teaches Pier­rot to sing the French an­them in Ger­man, promis­ing the boy: “Some­day we will take back what’s ours … And when we do, re­mem­ber whose side you’re on.” When Wilhelm dies, crushed un­der a mov­ing train, Em­i­lie in­sists “it was the war that killed him”.

Af­ter the sub­se­quent death of his mother, Pier­rot is taken to live with his aunt Beatrix at the Berghof, the hide­away in the Bavar­ian Alps of “the master”, Adolf Hitler. Pier­rot spends the next 10 years liv­ing in near-seclu­sion on the moun­tain, wit­ness­ing dur­ing that time both the rise and the fall of Nazi Ger­many.

Ir­ish writer John Boyne, de­spite the nu­mer­ous nov­els for adults and chil­dren he has writ­ten since, is still best known for his 2006 fa­ble The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas, the dis­turb­ing story of a young boy, Bruno, whose fa­ther is in charge of the Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp. The Boy at the Top of the Moun­tain — mar­keted as a com­pan­ion novel — also deals with the hor­rors of the Third Re­ich, but in a more oblique way.

Where The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas em­pha­sised the in­dis­crim­i­nate ef­fects of evil, this new work fo­cuses on the na­ture of com­plic­ity: the al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble ac­cre­tion of guilt that comes when we turn a blind eye to wrong­do­ing (a theme Boyne also ex­plores in his most re­cent novel for adults, A History of Lone­li­ness, which deals with child sex­ual abuse in the Catholic Church).

Pier­rot’s aunt en­sures that Hitler finds no rea­son to ob­ject to the boy’s pres­ence at the Berghof. She changes his name to Pi­eter and he is made to wear clothes a good Ger­man boy would wear. He is not al­lowed to say where he is from, nor is he to men­tion his child­hood friend Anshel, a Jewish boy. In­ad­ver­tently, the ground­work is laid for Pier­rot’s as­sim­i­la­tion into Nazi Ger­many.

Soon, Pier­rot is wear­ing the uni­form of the Hitler Youth — re­ceived from Hitler him­self — and giv­ing or­ders to the ser­vants. His nat­u­ral em­pa­thy is slowly eroded; and the fur­ther he is drawn into Hitler’s con­fi­dence — at­tend­ing meet­ings with the Wind­sors; tak­ing dic­ta­tion for the com­man­dants of the con­cen­tra­tion camps; foil­ing an at­tempt on the Fuhrer’s life — the more iso­lated he be­comes from the ame­lio­rat­ing ef­fects of friends and fam­ily: “Pier­rot stayed very still as his eyes met the eyes of Adolf Hitler. He knew what he had to do. Click­ing his heels to­gether, he shot his right arm for­ward … and of­fered the salute that had be­come so much part of him.”

Read­ing this novel, I was re­minded of CP Tay­lor’s stag­ger­ing play Good, the story of a ‘‘good’’ man, John Halder, whose seem­ingly mi­nor com­pro­mises and ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tions lead to col­lu­sion with the Nazis. The Boy at the Top of the Moun­tain makes the com­pelling case that evil acts aren’t con­fined to evil peo­ple; that we are all vul­ner­a­ble.

The novel is muted in its un­fold­ing, and only rarely does Boyne be­labour the point. There is no sud­den mo­ment of in­sight for Pier­rot when, at 15 and with the war over, he finds him­self alone at the Berghof. He has had doubts about his ac­tions, and the part­ing words of Herta, one of the ser­vants, hit him with ap­palling force: “You heard it all. You saw it all. You knew it all … Just don’t ever tell your­self that you didn’t know … That would be the worst crime of all.”

But it’s not un­til he is in­terned by Al­lied forces that Pier­rot fully com­pre­hends his guilt. Read­ing these fi­nal chap­ters is like watch­ing a wound be­ing prised open. They are re­mark­ably pow­er­ful and give the novel the weight, the heft, that will firmly an­chor it in read­ers’ mem­o­ries.

The Boy at the Top of the Moun­tain speaks more di­rectly to its young adult read­er­ship than The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas, and in its tone and lan­guage it prob­a­bly has more in com­mon with Boyne’s World War I novel for young read­ers, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.

Boyne has an in­ter­est­ing habit of draw­ing ex­plicit links be­tween his nov­els. Here, Pier­rot briefly crosses paths with Bruno and his fam­ily. Sim­i­larly, the bat­tle­field con­fronta­tion that had such a pro­found ef­fect on Wilhelm Fis­cher’s men­tal health is the same event that scars English­man Ge­orgie Sum­mer­field in Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, an in­ci­dent also re­counted in com­pelling de­tail in Boyne’s adult novel The Ab­so­lutist. These are not gra­tu­itous con­nec­tions; rather, they un­der­line the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect a sin­gle po­tent ac­tion can have on nu­mer­ous lives.

The Boy at the Top of the Moun­tain is un­likely to have the same im­pact as The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas — few nov­els could. It is nev­er­the­less a force­ful com­pan­ion vol­ume, re­mind­ing us that si­lence and com­pro­mise can foster their own over­whelm­ing guilt.

Adolf Hitler with Eva Braun at the Berghof in Bavaria

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