I love reading a new author for the first time, and Boll is one of those – although I have been aware of his name and work for a little while. This isn’t necessarily the book I would have chosen of his to read first, but as it was sitting in a charity shop it was a good one to pick up!

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Boll is of course a Nobel Prize winner and Wikipedia says: “Heinrich Theodor Böll (21 December 1917 – 16 July 1985) was one of Germany’s foremost post-World War II writers. Böll was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize in 1967 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.” He’s written a number of very well-known books (“The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum” perhaps being the best known in this country).but this was his first, published in 1949.

“The Train Was on Time” is set during the Second World War, 1943 to be precise, and our protagonist is a young soldier called Andreas; returning from leave and being sent towards Poland and the Russian front, he has a chilling premonition of his death. As he boards the troop train it hits him, and as the journey begins, this impending sense of death crystallises into a definite time and place, after which Andreas can no longer imagine existence. As the train hurtles on, carrying him to his doom, he befriends other soldiers on board; stops off and breaks his journey; meets a musical prostitute; and we gradually learn more about his past as his future disappears.

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For a first novel, this is a remarkable assured work with surprising depth. It’s a short book that throws up a number of questions. As well as capturing the dislocation of life during wartime, it tackles large topics: the inevitability of death, fate and whether it’s avoidable, and the position of the cogs in the wheels of any huge conflict. Andreas is a relatively simple man; religious, prone to prayer, a virgin, and haunted by a pair of eyes he saw in France. He wants to love but knows now he will never do so. And despite his impending fate, he’s surprised at how much the ordinary things of life, sleep, food and companionship, still absorb his time, while he thinks he should be dealing with profound subjects and holding on to his last hours of life. I shan’t say anything about the denouement, but it’s dramatic and not entirely what I expected.

I read TTWOT quickly, and in many ways it’s a deceptively easy read. The writing has a slightly hypnotic quality, which adds to the feeling of isolation in the train, removal from reality in the madness of war, and also the sense that one’s destiny is out of control. There’s much about morality and mortality going on in the book, and I’m still musing on it days after finishing it. Boll is a fascinating author, and definitely one whose work I want to explore further.

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