John Boyne holds up his phone proudly to show the display. It reads: “143 days since escaped hell.”
He “escaped hell” by deleting his Twitter account. For good, he says. How does it feel?
“It frees up the mind enormously, it’s the best decision I’ve made in years,” he says, his face brightening. “Once you are no longer on [Twitter] you realise how little it matters, it’s just a bunch of people screaming at each other.”
Boyne is promoting his latest novel, revisiting territory he has covered before in fiction: the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Some 16 years ago, his novel aimed at younger readers, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, helped introduce a new generation to the Nazi machinery of death.
The story of two fictional nine-year-olds – Bruno, the camp commandant’s son, and Jewish inmate Shmuel – became a worldwide sensation and has sold 11 million copies to date. While creating controversy, more of which later, it catapulted Boyne into the publishing big league. He has tied the narrative threads he left dangling in that book with his latest release, All the Broken Places, the story of Bruno’s older sister Gretel.
Now a widow in her 90s, Gretel is living in London’s Mayfair, nursing a small fortune and the poisonous secret of her death camp father.
Through three levels of narrative, Gretel ties herself up in knots of guilt, shame and clan liability, grappling with the unresolved and unresolvable tragedy of her life: how can survivor guilt be coped with by someone who survived on the other side of the Auschwitz fence and the wrong side of history?
Boyne’s Gretel represents entire generations of Germans. Despite far-reaching efforts to come to terms with their terrible past in the post-war decades, Germans’ embrace of self-interested silence remains the rule rather than the exception.
“They feel unfairly guilty as they didn’t commit any crimes themselves but feel swept up with those who committed crimes,” says Boyne, during our Zoom call. “Gretel’s whole life has been tarnished by the actions of someone else: she feels she can’t excuse herself, but also feels ‘I have nothing to excuse myself for’.”
Where The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was the black-and-white collision of innocence and evil, this adult follow-up explores the messy grey tones in between.
With skill and empathy, Boyne has Gretel’s mother weave a web of complicit silence around herself and her daughter to secure their post-war survival.
Gretel’s approach of complacent complicity serves her well until a ghost from her past brings a forced, guilty admission of how, even as a 12-year-old, she bought into the privilege and attention brought by her father’s high Nazi rank.
Boyne’s loyal readers will delight in his assured storytelling and the occasional brutal set piece. Some plot twists may strain one’s willingness to suspend disbelief, but the novel is a compelling rollercoaster as Boyne dangles the prospect of a redemption of sorts to keep readers racing to the end.
Revisiting this fictional wartime family lures readers into tangled webs of inter-generational trauma which remain even today.
Only in the last years have grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators begun to break the silence on their family history in a way their parents could not. Leading the way is Alexandra Senfft – a close friend of this reporter’s – whose grandfather Hanns Ludin was Nazi governor in occupied Slovakia.
He sent an estimated 60,000 Jews to their death but, after his execution in 1947, his widow created a post-war fiction of him as a “good Nazi”. It was so far from reality, that the atmosphere of denial and disassociation eventually destroyed their daughter Erika, a real-life Gretel.
Since her mother’s death, Alexandra began exploring the silence in her and other perpetrator families, even organising fruitful discussions with families of Holocaust survivors.
“Many Germans struggle to reflect on how much their relatives benefited from remaining silent in the Nazi era,” she has told me.
While the Nazi regime was steered by a relatively small number of true believers, officials and soldiers, enough low-level complacency from enough people, she points out, is what really kept the Nazi machinery moving. In her work, Alexandra’s maxim has always been clear: confronting the demons of the past does not exor#e them, but can neutralise their hold on descendants.
A similar struggle – to acknowledge the hold of the past and free herself – is the battle of Gretel, whose story Boyne began sketching out after finishing the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in 2004.
“Originally I imagined her being a much more angry person but, as it turned out, when I wrote she was more introspective and calm,” he said. “In a strange way, it was a very pleasurable book to write. It flowed, despite the dark subject matter, perhaps because I’ve been living with this family for the guts of 20 years.”
Tapping into the issue of Nazi perpetrator families and their suffering in the post-war years is likely to be as controversial as the debate over The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been.
That book took on a life of its own in schools and book clubs, with some readers and teachers mistaking the book – clearly labelled “a fable” – as a non-fiction text, similar to the diary of Anne Frank, and others saying it was implausible the camp commandant’s son would not have had a greater understanding of what was happening on his doorstep.
This prompted the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum to warn that the book “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches the history of the Holocaust”.
Boyne says he never asked for his book to be used in schools. It would be “foolish”, he says, to base historical teaching of the Holocaust solely on his book.
“Mine is simply a novel that could be used in an ancilliary way. No part of me has ever suggested that if you want to understand the Holocaust then this (book) is how,” he said.
But criticising the book’s intention as a moral fable for taking artistic liberties with Auschwitz, as some have done, is, he says, “like someone studying the Russian revolution criticising Animal Farm because pigs can’t talk”.
“If you want to get children interested in this subject in the first place, you need to have stories that will take you there,” he said. “By any standards my book has been incredibly successful in doing that.”
The controversy has endured, however.
In hindsight, the dispute was a taster of what drives so many of today’s culture wars, which journalist and author Jon Ronson describes as “those things we shout at each other about online”.
Given the years since have seen a shift – some might say flattening – of public discourse, does Boyne think his Auschwitz fable would be published today?
“Absolutely not. Children’s and young adult publishing is in the worst place it has been in my lifetime,” he says.
Books on challenging subjects are effectively “unpublishable”, he thinks.
“Young adult writers are writing for each other to earn, in effect, ‘woke points’: to be told they are wonderful champions. They are not thinking of young readers,” says Boyne, who has written six novels for this audience. “Publishers are thinking, ‘what will social media not attack?’ But the job of real writers is to write the books that will challenge the reader and make them think.”
Warming to his topic, he suggests that “young Irish writers today are all writing the same book, it bothers nobody, offends nobody, it’s a cover version of the same novel, over and over”.
And what is this novel? He sees it as a formulaic university novel of “self-involved students who think they are the first people in the world ever to have sex” and in which the authors, “terrified of offending anyone make sure they hit, in each book, all the right things: gay people, trans people, people of colour”.
“That’s not a novel, that’s just nonsense,” says Boyne. He gets in touch later to insist he is not referring to Sally Rooney, for whom he has warm words, but other writers who he believes produce bland writing to fit a winning publishing formula.
Of course, commercial publishing has always responded to reader trends, and these days can rush out similar novels as fast as high street fashion reproduces copycat catwalk looks. Boyne hopes today’s ambitious debut novels by young writers “can be retrieved once publishing becomes courageous once again”.
Given his own success, could he help champion these young writers? With a sigh, it becomes clear he believes he has tried.
“Over years, I have helped a number of young and new writers and what I have discovered, to my disappointment, is that they will all turn on you when the crowd turns on you,” he said. “Writers I considered friends, whom I trusted, who turned on me in difficult moments and refused to use their voice to tell the world who I actually am and who the social media world pretends I am. That level of cowardice and betrayal disappoints me the most.”
With that, Boyne has taken us into the heart of his other main activity in the recent past: being someone who, depending on your perspective, either attracts – or courts – controversy.
In 2019, he found himself at the sharp end of social media ire with his young adult book exploring trans issues, My Brother’s Name is Jessica.
A heated, emotive debate raged on social media - and on these pages. Boyne says he found himself battling people who proudly admitted they had not read his book. In 2020, he told The Irish Times it was “perfectly possible” he had hurt trans people by speaking without thinking, adding: “It’s perfectly possible I should have educated myself more before writing that book.”
Two years on he is anxious not to return there saying his mistake over the years is to respond as a writer outside of his novels or interviews like ours - on Twitter and elsewhere.
Next month marks 30 years since his first story was published, he is now the author of 21 books.
After we speak, I email him wondering if there is a way of getting back to the themes of his new book, which interest me.
In his reply he insists he would rather not focus too much on culture wars - then he jumps right back in again.
Seven years after the marriage equality referendum, Boyne says talk of a LGBTQ+ community today “seems exclusionary to me, as if all LGBTQ are on one side of a fence, holding the same beliefs and the same political and ideological positions”.
Boyne, a gay man, says LGBTQ+ people are individuals, “people with our own minds”, yet he feels that people like him are at risk of attack from what he describes as some “virtue-signalling” heterosexual allies of the trans community.
As I read his emailed comments in my Berlin kitchen, into my head pops the German verb for trying to improve things while possibly making things worse: verschlimmbessern.
“Groupthink was the basis of the Nazi regime; indoctrination gave it its power,” he writes. “In a civilised society - and, for that matter, in publishing - the freedom to express one’s opinions without being vilified or threatened with erasure must be upheld.”
All the Broken Places is published by Doubleday on September 15th