Slippery slope leads to complicity
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