Closely Observed Trains – Bohumil Hrabal (1965, trans. Edith Pargeter 1968) 91 pages
I’m flagging a bit with my Novella a Day challenge, but I’m telling myself there’s only a few more days to go. I’m still really enjoying it, but my post-covid brain is struggling. This meant when I sat down to read Closely Observed Trains, I thought for ages that it wasn’t working for me due to my rubbish concentration levels. Then suddenly it clicked, and as a result it broke my heart.
The story is narrated by Miloš Hrma, young apprentice on the railways during 1945 in Bohemia (one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge.)
“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 timetable, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.”
This slightly surreal comedic tone continues throughout the novel as we learn about Miloš’ colleagues: lascivious dispatcher Hubička and pigeon-loving station master Lánksý. There is a lot of silliness – Hubička is caught up in a daft sex scandal, Lánksý can be pompous and ridiculous.
But there is a serious side too. Miloš is returning to work after cutting his wrists. There is a lot of animal suffering and at first I was baffled as to why, before realising it was a way of introducing violence and victimhood to a novel about war which doesn’t include warfare.
As Miloš and his colleagues continue their ordinary lives, the troop trains trundle past to the Eastern front.
“This year the Germans had lost control of the airspace over our little town. When I rode along the footpath to the fuselage of the aircraft the snow was glittering on the level fields, and in every crystal of snow there seemed to be an infinitely tiny second hand ticking, the snow crackled so in the brilliant sunlight, shimmering in many colours.”
Closely Observed Trains presents a narrator with a distinct young voice: vulnerable, inexperienced, sceptical and funny. It finely balances unreality and humour alongside humanity and pathos. It’s deeply serious but written lightly, showing how bravery and heroism can exist in the unlikeliest places.
It could be my aforementioned foggy covid brain, but as I was writing this post I started to feel a bit teary by the end. This really was the most affecting novella.