It’s absurd to laugh while reading a novella about World War II, or any war for that matter, but that’s what happened when I read Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains, which was Caroline’s March pick for her Literature and War Readalong. While I am not sure Hrabal meant for me to be as amused as I was, I appreciated his humor to show the absurdity of war. But despite my laughter, I was never able to forget that behind every odd image and surreal situation, there was the reality of war, the suffering and pain of the people who were there.
There is a German tank brought to a halt by the head of a man it rolled over; there are shell-shocked people laughing like crazy after an air raid, next to a sign that says “Finished in Five Minutes”; there is the board of a dice game called “Don’t be angry, lad” among blood stains and gun shells on an old passenger train; there are badly burned soldiers kept in oil to make them “almost amphibians” while their nurse cooks vegetable soup and shoots morphine into their veins. And while the “hope and youth” goes to fight for a Free Europe, and a medical train with wounded soldiers drives into the opposite direction, at the train station they investigate why the dispatcher one night stamped the buttocks of the beautiful telegraphist with all the stamps that could be found in the station office. (There are pictures to prove it!)
While this is taking place, the main character, Milos Hrma, grapples with the fact that he was unable to perform when he was about to have sex for the first time. He was so distraught that he tried to commit suicide afterwards. Since he survived, everyone around him thinks that he might have only done this to get out of having to work, since his father and grandfather weren’t very ambitious when it came to their careers. Yet Milos, for now, is only a young man terrified of not being able to be a man, and he rather desperately tries to ask several people for help—which leads to more funny and absurd situations.
Ultimately, help is provided by a young woman named Victoria Freie, who takes Milos’ innocence and in return gives him the courage for one single grand final gesture that takes place as Dresden is burning in the distance.
I have to say that while reading the first 60 pages of this 90-page novella, I was entertained but I couldn’t figure out exactly what the reason behind it was. I couldn’t quite understand what Hrabal was trying to say or show me. But those last 30 pages… they sucked me right in. Suddenly, it all wasn’t that funny anymore. I didn’t see the end coming, and it was heartbreaking and sobering, and I know that I will be thinking about this little gem for quite some time to come.