Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Sometimes a book slips onto your wishlist and you really can’t recall why and where it came from – well, I often find that to be the case, anyway! “Closely Observed Trains” is a case in point, and I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from my lovely Virago Secret Santa (Cushla) last Christmas. A novella of just over 90 pages, I thought it would be the ideal read after the length of “How To Quiet a Vampire” (which did take a little commitment), although its short length is perhaps a little deceptive, as it’s another book with plenty to say…

closely Wikipedia says of author Bohumil Hrabal (28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) simply that he was “a Czech writer, regarded by many Czechs as one of the best writers of the 20th century.” The site also says that “During the war, he worked as railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty, near Nymburk, an experience reflected in one of his best-known works (Closely Observed Trains)” – so it seems as though Hrabal was drawing from his life for parts of this book (but not all….)

The book is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia (or as the back cover describes it, “a small but strategic railway station in Bohemia”) and the year is 1945. German troops are travelling to the front regularly, and wounded and dying men are being brought back. However, the narrator, a young man called Milos, is concerned with other matters. There is the possible promotion of the station master; the scandal caused by fellow Dispatcher Hubicka who’s been using the station’s official stamps on unmentionable parts of the telegraphist (well, ok, on her bottom….); and there is Milos’s desire to lose his own innocence, something he’s failed to do so far. However, Milos has a darker side; as the story progresses, we find that he’s survived a recent attempted suicide. And there is an ammunition train passing through the station soon, which may be the subject of a sabotage attempt – though by whom is not clear…

I’ve seen this novella described as a tragicomedy (and what an odd term that is!); certainly both elements are present in the narrative. The station master is very funny, pompously strutting around with pigeons on his shoulder and showing off the new uniform he’ll wear when promoted; and the whole saga of Hubicka and the stamps is very silly! But on balance the darkness wins; death is never far away, and Milos narrowly misses execution by the Germans when a scarred officer spots the marks on Milos’ wrists from his suicide attempt and senses a fellow victim. Hrabal pulls no punches in his description of the horrors of war, with the wounded returning from the front being described with cold clarity. There is a theme running through the book of cruelty and suffering: the wounded in the train trucks could be equated with the animals being transported in cramped and horrible conditions, and the reader is left in no doubt about the harshness and stupidity of war.

hrabal

You could, I suppose, consider the book as a snapshot of life under German occupation at a particularly difficult time of the war, and certainly the book shows the absurdity and brutality of that particular situation, as well as the various strategies that the characters employ to survive. However, the undertow of bleakness, the sadness of so many of the characters involved and the darkness of the ending left me thinking again of what a mess human beings can make of their lives and the world around them. “Closely Observed Trains” packs a lot of moving and thought-provoking events into its short length and certainly keeps you thinking about the pointlessness of conflict for a long time afterwards.

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