It is amazing how such a short book can create such a profound impact on the readers. In mere 90 pages, Czech writer Bohumil Hrbal create a magic that refuses to leave me even after 10 days. I would have read this book 4-5 times, in complete or in parts, so much for its impact on me. I realise, such was the general opinion of the readers of Hrbal. I havent seen the movie, but its visual adaptation, came out an year after the books release, had caused a similar reaction to the movie lovers.
Year is 1945 and German's are loosing grip on the Word War II. The allied forces are winning, and the Soviets are advancing in the Eastern front.
"By this year, the year forty-five, the Germans had already lost command of the air space over our little town. Over the whole region, in fact , and for that matter, the whole country"
The continued bombardment and other disruption causing delay in the functions of the rail system ;"Morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening". One for the German flight was shot down over the town and soon its parts metamorphosed into "little roofs for rabbit hutches and hen houses, leg guard for motor-bikes and other useful things by the town people. 20 year old Milos Hrma, is an apprentice in the towns railway station, strategic and important for its position. They are expected to make sure that the trains carrying the returning German Soldiers, devastated from the Eastern front, have a smooth transit. Milos Hrma, lives in his on fantasy world , fighting his own battle. We understand, that he just returned from hospital from a slit wrist, attempting to commit suicide, after a disastrous first sexual experience. He is fighting the battle of his own impotency , while living the tale of his own supervisor's adventurous life in the station with the "Telegraph operator", where she was found with the Station stamp all over her backside on the station masters couch.
German trains are important and had to be closely watched for their safe and uninterrupted passage. A failure to which might get the attention of Gestapo. Working on the monotonous task of clearing the train signals, the book now focuses on Milos Hrma and his growing up to manhood. It is important for him to erase his past and gain confidence on himself. The process is not only with the girl , but to the society that ridiculed him. What we see in a superbly built climax is just that, where he confront the train load of Nazi munitions in a singly executed rebelleous act of sabotage.
Its a simple story, told in an impeccable style. Eventhough the reading is deceptively straight and funny, its rich and dense beneath these words. Milos Hrma's fight is not only his but of Czeckoslovakia, against the Germans. The act on a 'sense of purpose' is the country's attempt to shake its impotency. The small railway station is the microcosm of the people with "collaborators, resistants, the rest who get laid. While observing the returning trains, for Milos Hrma, he himself is being watched.
Despite its size, it progresses beautifully. With the initial description of the war front, with the imminent defeat of Germans, Hrbal, tells us the family background of Hrma, before taking us to the railway station of action. Hrma's story of failure and his return to the work is mentioned in beautifully mixed flashback. Language is simple and poetic. However, what makes this book interesting is the possibilities of reading within the lines. Outstanding work of fiction.-------------------------------------------------------------
Closely Observed Trains ( 1965 )
Bohumil Hrabal ( translated from Czech by Edith Pargeter ( orig. English Translation in 1968)
Other reviews : Asylum , Pechorin's journal, About.com Classic Literature