#EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains

I managed to find and order this book just in time and read it on the 31st of March for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. However, this was on the plane on the way to Lyon, so I didn’t get to write a review until this week.

Perhaps this should be an entry for Czechoslovakia, which is what the country was at the time when Bohumil Hrabal wrote this in 1965. But he wrote in Czech rather than Slovakian and, when he was born in 1914, his home town of Brno was in Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dangers of living in Central Europe… your borders may change several times over the course of your life.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in 1968, his books were banned, and you can see why that might be the case. He certainly has a mischievous streak in his story-telling, a combination of broad (almost slapstick) humour and darkness, but in Closely Observed Trains he is talking about the passive resistance of a group of railway workers against the occupation – and, although it takes place in the Second World War and the occupying forces are German, it probably resembled the situation at the time a little too closely.

Miloš Hrma is a rather naive young man, an apprentice at a railway station in Bohemia in 1945. The Germans have lost control over the airspace over the little town, and the trains are anything but running as normal.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

Miloš comes from a family where the men have successfully avoided hard labour for generations: his great-grandfather was only eighteen when he was granted a disability benefit for being wounded as a drummer-boy in the Imperial Army, his grandfather was a hypnotist who thought he could convince the marauding German tanks to turn back, his father had retired on a double-pension at the age of forty-eight and was busy collecting and recycling scraps, so that at home they have ‘fifty chairs, seven tables, nine couches, and shoals of little cabinets and washstands and jugs.’ Miloš himself is proud of his beautiful service uniform, with all the insignia of his status, brass buttons, splendid stars and a winged wheel like a little golden sea-horse.

Still from the film Closely Watched Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

But he is a troubled boy, who has only just returned to duty after trying to slash his wrists three months previously. The reason for that (or at least the most overt reason for it) becomes gradually apparent: an embarrassing moment of sexual inadequacy with the young conductor Masha. He is desperate to lose his virginity, but not quite sure how to go about it, in equal measure intrigued and repulsed by his randy colleague Dispatcher Hubička’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the pretty telegraphist’s anatomy. Meanwhile, stationmaster Lánský only seems to care about his pigeons and not being made a fool of during the government inspection. Then, somehow, Miloš gets caught up in plans to sabotage an ammunition convoy passing through.

This image of Hrma from the film perfectly sums up the young man.

I’ll stop telling any more of the story here, because I run the risk of making my review longer than the actual story, which is very slim, around 80 pages. More of a novella really, but packed with content and emotion. Even the brief recount above gives you an idea of the tragicomic blend of gruesome fact and salacious humour, of rapier wit and compassion, even surreal elements, sometimes in the very same sentence. A very tricky balance to achieve, but not a word is wasted. Here is a description of the wounded soldiers returning from the front:

And in this mobile sick-bay at which I was gazing, the strangest thing was the human eyes, the eyes of all those wounded soldiers. As though that agony there at the front, the agony they had inflicted on others and which others now were inflicting on them, had turned them into different people; these Germans were more sympathetic than those who were travelling in the opposite direction. They all peered through the windows into the dull countryside so attentively, with such childlike earnestness, as though they were passing through paradise itself, as though in my little station they saw a jewel-box.

A remarkable, punchy read, with only slightly veiled depths. Even if the intention was not obviously political , this book was published at a time when each sentence could be (and indeed was) interpreted in both literal and metaphorical fashion. It has made me very eager to tackle another of Hrabal’s books Too Loud a Solitude.