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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

"The train was on time" by Heinrich Boll

A very short novel set in the Second World War. A German soldier boards a train taking him to the Eastern Front. He becomes convinced that he is going to die soon. The train is carrying him towards his fate. Will he escape it?

I think that this is a novel written on two levels. One is the level of myth. It follows a classic mythic structure sometimes called the Hero's Journey (other books in this blog that also have mythic structures include Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt). In this structure, identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and followed consciously by George Lucas when writing the first Star Wars film, the Hero first receives a call which he refuses, he then embarks on a journey, entering a new world, he encounters Guides or Companions who help him find the way, he has opportunities to leave his quest which he may or may not take (these can be seen as trials), and near the climax he descends into the cave. In the case of Boll's book:
  • He is an Outsider:
    • Andreas is a very strange soldier like Boll (who was a pacifist conscripted into the Nazi army) . Andreas’s best friend, Paul, is a chaplain, and Andreas prays a lot (including praying for Jews). Symbolically, Andreas has forgotten to bring his rifle, which he has left propped up in Paul’s room. 
  • At the start of the journey he has the opportunity to Refuse the Call: 
    • ‘Get on?’ asked the soldier, amazed. ‘Why, I might want to hurl myself under the wheels, I might want to desert.”
  • He is on a journey. 
    • Once he boards the train (presumably a metaphor, given that it travels on an undeviating track and you can’t get off until it stops) he realises: “the terrible thing is that I’m going to die … soon!” This word ‘soon’ (“Soon I’m going to die, that’s a certainty that lies between one year and one second”) triggers a process of searching his mind for what bits of the future he can visualise and which bits are a blur, he starts to narrow down the place (and therefore the day and time, he’s on a train whose timetable equates place and time) he believes he is going to die. 
  • He has two Companions, one of whom has a Map. 
    • Andreas meets two other soldiers on the train: a blonde boy and an unshaven sergeant on leave (who, significantly, lends Andreas a map which he uses to help him pinpoint his place of death). These are his Companions on the train. He is the Outsider, brought into contact with the world: “‘That’s right, mate,’ said the blond fellow. ‘Forget your troubles and join the game.’” They persuade him to play cards (another symbol: card games are governed by the random shuffle but once they are started the outcome of the game is largely fixed).
  • These companions offer him a number of opportunities to escape his destiny; he Refuses the first chances but eventually he is persuaded to take the last.
    • I could get out here, go off someplace, any place, on and on, till they caught me and put me up against a wall, and I wouldn’t die between Lvov and Cernauti, I would be shot in some little village in Saxony or die like a dog in a concentration camp. But I’m standing here by the window and I feel as if I were made of lead. I can’t move, I feel paralyzed, this train is part of me and I’m part of the train, this train that has to carry me to my appointed end, and the strange part about it is that I have absolutely no desire to get out here.
    • There are trains going the other way which he has an opportunity to board: “From Lvov we take the civilian express, the courier train, the one that goes direct from Warsaw to Bucharest. It’s a terrific train, I always take it, all you need is to get your pass stamped, and we’ll see to that,’ he guffawed, ‘we’ll see to that, but I’m not letting on how!’
    • Towards the end he is taken by his Companions to a restaurant and then a brothel. I suggest that the brothel is the Descent into the Cave. It is this that gives him the chance to escape his destiny.
But the book also works on a thoroughly mundane level. It is a tale of a German soldier travelling on a troop train to the front. Every detail is kept deliberately mundane (eg “Wherever there are soldiers there’s dirt.”) in order to provide the myth with verisimilitude.

This foreknowledge of death, being supernatural, is asserted: It is also asserted: “To lovers and soldiers, to men marked for death and to those filled with the cosmic force of life, this power is sometimes given.” but the author has to work hard to make the reader believe it and therefore, just as in Kafka, he surrounds the foreknowledge with details that are thoroughly mundane (and at the same time symbolic): “Somewhere in the distance searchlights were raking the sky, like long spectral fingers parting the blue cloak of the night ... those silent, uncannily long, spectral fingers of the searchlights, still groping across the sky. It seemed as if the faces belonging to those fingers must be grinning, eerily grinning, cynically grinning like the faces of usurers and swindlers. ‘We’ll get you,’ said the thin-lipped, gaping mouths belonging to those fingers. ‘We’ll get you, we’ll grope all night long.’ Maybe they were looking for a bedbug, a tiny bug in the cloak of the night, those fingers, and they would find the bug.” 

The prose is everyday and unsensational with a great deal of repetition, not always exact repetition.

Great lines:
  • “Those halting, colourless goodbyes exchanged beside trains on their way to death
  • Soon can mean in one year. Soon is a terrible word. This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty. Soon is nothing and Soon is a lot. Soon is everything. Soon is death. ... This Soon is like a thunderclap. This little word is like the spark that sets off the thunderstorm, and suddenly, for the thousandth part of a second, the whole world is bright beneath this word.
  • What a pretty girl, he thought: everyone will think she’s ugly, and she’s pretty, she’s beautiful ...”
  • Everything bad comes from those resounding voices; those resounding voices started the war, and those resounding voices regulate the worst war of all, the war at railway stations.
  • How terrible, to have to eat just before one’s death. Soon I’m going to die, yet I still have to eat.
  • It was terrible to look into the drab houses where the slaves were getting ready to march off to their factories. House after house, house after house, and everywhere lived people who suffered, who laughed, people who ate and drank and begat new human beings, people who tomorrow might be dead; the place was teeming with human life.
  • What a laborious, frightful business it was, this killing time, over and over again that little second hand racing invisibly beyond the horizon,"
  • "the silence of those who said nothing, nothing at all, was terrible. It was the silence of those who knew they were all done for.
  • vast gloomy estates where brooding women dreamed of adultery since they had begun to find their blubber-necked husbands repulsive
  • Splendid and gloomy and without lightness, those cities, with bloody pasts and untamed back streets, silent and untamed.
  • Many people are like that, an object suddenly becomes valuable to them because someone else would like to have it.
  • pale, sad eyes the colour of sand dark with rain; unhappy eyes, much that was animal in them and all that was human,”
  • “‘We live on hope,’ Paul had once said. As if one were to say: ‘We live on credit.’ We have no security … nothing”
  • Every turn of the wheels tears a piece off my life,
  • Corpses are heavy … I’m telling you, the bodies of dead men weigh a ton. Corpses are heavier than the whole world”
  • How crazy for the sun to shine like that, Andreas thought, and a dreadful nausea lay like poison in his blood.
  • It’s a terrible thing to maltreat a person because that person seems ugly to you. There are no ugly people.
  • Twelve hours before my death I have to find out that life is beautiful, and it’s too late. I’ve been ungrateful, I’ve denied the existence of human happiness.
  • It’s always a good idea to start with yes. You can always say no later. If you say no right off, your chances of doing business are nil.
  • every death in war is a murder for which someone is responsible.
  • When they have a hangover, all they ever want is sausage.
Beautifully written, carefully structured and thought-provoking.

November 2019; 108 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:


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  2. I'm blushing with false modesty and pride. Thank you