Even though it stands at a diminutive 91 pages, Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains packs just as strong a punch as his longer works. Set in rural Bohemia against the final days of Germany’s 1945 occupation of Czechoslovakia, the book follows Milos Hrma, a naive and sensitive young railway apprentice, as he returns to work following a suicide attempt. Like all of Hrabal’s work, Closely Observed Trains trips along at a nimble pace, stepping with apparent effortlessness from the entirely absurd and the deadly serious.
“Ghastly, the whole of Dresden’s kaput…. The whole of Dresden’s one torch. This lot climbed into my vans,” he [the train chief] said… And those Germans stood… staring at the ground; maybe they were seeing those last moments when they had leaped out of their windows into gardens and streets, everything cut off from them by falling trees and walls and beams. All those Germans had long arms, hanging now almost to their knees, and all this time not one of them blinked, as though horror had cut off their eyelids. And I had no pity for them, I who had wept over every kid that ever was slaughtered, and everything that suffered distress, I could find no pity now for those Germans. (p. 82)
The war is in its last days and the Germans have lost control of all Czech airspace, but the railway line that passes through the town remains a highly strategic one. Young Milos’ experience of war is distanced, and somewhat secondary to his personal troubles, but there is no glory to what he witnesses – hospice care for fatally burned soldiers; the victim of an aerial dog-fight; German citizens displaced following the firebombing of Dresden; the life-threatening pressure on Milos and the other railway staff to keep the trains running on time; a bullet-ridden, blood-stained train standing by as augury.
There was another close-surveillance transport running through the main line. All the fellows sunning themselves there on the tanks were young boys, just like myself, some of them even younger… but when they passed by that strafed train on the fifth line they froze, struck motionless. As each wagon came into the vicinity of those shattered coaches, consigned to the workshops for repair, every person aboard it froze, even the cooks stopped peeling potatoes, though these soldiers must surely have seen worse things at home, shattered towns, houses, heaps of dead. But just here, and now, and this, they hadn’t been expecting… (p. 56)
No review of Hrabal’s books can ever do his writing justice, or ever adequately express how much I adore his work. To so seamlessly blend antics worthy of Benny Hill with the personal trauma of a failed suicide with the tensions of the humanity/inhumanity of an invading, all in the kind of casual narrative style you’d find chatting with a chap three beers deep at your local bar, and to make it all engaging is truly a unique feat. The ending is typically Hrabal – it may not leave you feeling happy, but it will leave you feeling.
And the captain’s eyes were gazing now at my wrist, where I too, had a scar; my sleeve had slipped down, and the captain looked at that healed wound like a man reading a book. Perhaps this captain had already learned much more, perhaps he was looking at everything now from the opposite viewpoint… And now they were all staring at my wrist, and the captain stretched out his little whip, and with it drew back my other sleeve, too, and looked at the second scar.
“Kamerad,” he said.
And he made a sign, and the close-surveillance military transport slowed down, and the two pistols were withdrawn from my back…
“Go”, said the captain.
“Thank you,” I whispered. (p. 35)