Monday, February 23, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shook me. It was part of the Fringe Flicks series here in Nanaimo, and I saw it last night. It's the story of an eight-year-old German boy, the son of a concentration camp commander, who befriends a boy of his own age on the other side of the fence.

The criticism I'd heard in advance was that the plot was implausible. It was said that it would have been impossible for a child in those circumstances to have passed an apple to a child on the other side of the fence. I resolved to check out the movie and decide for myself.

I came away not giving a rat's patootie about the credibility of the plot. I still am not convinced that something like that could have happened, but ....... who cares?!?!?!?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I would extend his quotation to an insistence on credibility in a historical novel.

I have lived in a situation that, although it was not as intense as WW II Germany, shared many similarities with it and at times felt frightening to me. That situation was apartheid-era South Africa.

I can attest that the movie accurately depicted many of the dilemmas that a person in a situation like that experiences. For example, the protagonist's mother mainly coped with the presence of a camp inmate who worked in their house and garden by ignoring him. But, when he had performed a kindness for her son, you saw her struggling to decide how to respond. She ended up saying, "Thank you," but did so without looking at him.

I was reminded of a similar moment that I experienced in South Africa. When I was newly married, I needed to call an electrician to fix something in our house. The electrician who turned up was white. The job reservation laws that excluded black people from the skilled trades made sure of that. But, walking behind the electrician, carrying a ladder and a tool box, was the ubiquitous black assistant.

After they'd been working for a while, I asked the electrician if he would like some tea, and he said that would be lovely.

If I'd been a typical white woman, I would have gone into the kitchen and asked my maid to make tea for the workmen. However, I had chosen not to have domestic help, so I made the tea myself.

I also had decided not to acquire a set of boys' plates. They were tin plates and tin mugs in which to serve food and drink to black people. Their name was derived from the fact that white South Africans referred to black men as boys and black women as girls.

I carried a tray with two china cups and saucers into the room in which the electrician and his helper were working. The electrician was up on the ladder. He looked down at the tray. He didn't say a word, but I thought his eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. It seemed to be all he could do to keep his balance on the ladder.

Just as the camp commandant in the movie struggled to curb his wife as the implications of his work started to dawn on her, my husband started to hear complaints in our small town that his wife was out of control. He asked me very politely if I would try to contain my behaviour, as his job on the mine would become untenable if I carried on unchecked.

My gestures of defiance were so feeble. I was too scared to stand up to apartheid to any significant extent. Yet the system demanded such unwavering loyalty that even my puny resistance would have been perceived as a threat, and I would have found myself in hot water sooner or later.

Luckily we managed to emigrate to Canada before things got out of hand.

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