Book Review

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabel

Good Czech book, but do I need to try harder to czech my privilege?

Closely Observed Trains is a beautiful book and – other than its male gazy attitude towards sexuality – is a nuanced and deeply moving exploration of civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe. The distractions, the fear, the shame, the depression – this is a heady mix of mental illness, grief, regret, burgeoning sexuality and powerlessness against distant actions that impact constantly on ones attempt to maintain a separate and normal existence.

Milos Hrma is a junior member of staff at a provincial Czech railway station towards the end of the second world war. The two Senior members of staff are the station master – an amateur pigeon fancier who is, other than when distracted by birds, a suck-up to authority – and Dispatcher Hubička, a man deeply in the shit due to his womanising, though the overt rambunctiousness of this is possibly a deliberate cover for his role within the resistance. Of course, it may well be that both are true – one can be a goat and a freedom fighter, right? The naive protagonist, whose eyes we see through in a close first person, struggles to understand Hubička’s appeal to women, as he is both bald and middle aged. I’m guessing, though, that the writer was also bald and this was mere fantasy. That, or the fact that attractive women want to engage in sexual jinks with a baldie may well be a literary device used to indicate the extreme behaviours caused by the effects of war. We may never know.

Their small railway station sits between Germany and the Russian front, and the tide of the war is slipping in the direction of the Allies. More Germans travel through their station injured, back towards their hometowns, than travel onwards to the war. There is anger and aggression in every convoy that flows eastwards, but sadness, pain and regret in every one that takes dead and dying men to the fatherland. Milos has visited military hospitals, in fact he spent several weeks as a patient in one following a botched suicide attempts a few months ago. As an in-patient but one with non-life-threatening injuries (he slashed his wrists in an anonymous hotel bath, but was found almost immediately by a bricklayer who was working in the corridor and could tell something was up), Milos wandered around the hospital and spent hours every day in the burns unit, where men would lie in baths of oil, knowing they would never recover, knowing they were destined for death. His family would visit him, but his girlfriend would not – his suicide was (to him, though probably not in reality) due to the fact that he failed to maintain an erection during their first attempt at sex. He places the cause of his suicide attempt at this fault of his penis, his failure to be a man, but in reality, this is a metaphor for his self-hatred at his failure to do anything to stop the Nazis, his shame at his inability to fight, to resist, and when an opportunity – via the womanising Hubička – arises to make a defiant, violent, gesture, he takes it with both hands. He also – in symbolism that feels a bit more 1920s than 1960s (when it was written) – shags the messenger who delivers the weapon to the men at the station, proving his manhood to himself sexually before embarking upon more violent actions.

Violence is everywhere, though, haunting the pages before the novella begins due to the botched suicide and flickering away far from the action in the air raids they see on the horizon. There are also the regular trainloads of death. Co-opted into helping the Nazi state, the two station workers (unlike their boss) are deeply conflicted, deeply troubled. They are troubled by the world and this shows itself in their sexualities – Hubička is facing a disciplinary action for stamping post office date stamps all over the naked buttocks of the female telegraph officer, and the incredulity from the other characters is rooted in disbelief-tinged envy. Sexual politics, as I mentioned at the start, are rather dated though, with the young, sexually voracious female characters somewhat caricatured, though the figure of the menopausal stationmaster’s wife is more nuanced. This is a novella, though, about men, and it is this lack in its depiction of rounded female characters that holds Closely Observed Trains off from being a great, rather than a very good, novella. Remember, to try and do something and fail at it is broadly considered worse than not trying to do it at all. Every female character bar the stationmaster’s wife could be cut from this text and it would not suffer for it – doing something badly shows up weaknesses – this is why people don’t try in life, isn’t it? This is why I don’t write any more. I can’t write well on any of the topics that interest me, so I’d rather not bother than do so badly. Should I even be writing this blog? Is this legitimate, writing about my feelings based on books I’ve read? Am I over-extending myself, am I being presumptive by presuming it’s legitimate for me to engage with culture? This is what I’m doing with the web series, I suppose, swapping my voice for other people’s, allowing other people to provide the content, because I don’t feel comfortable being myself any more.

It’s weird, isn’t it? I think I like the idea of becoming a translator, but I’d probably need to go back into far more formal Spanish education than I’ve been having for a few years before being able to do that. Maybe that would suit me, not engaging with anything truly creative myself, merely funnelling, channelling, someone else’s creativity, as Edith Pargeter does here for Bohumil Hrabel. Or is that then presumptive, too, would I be dropping my own ingrained white heteronormative patriarchal ideologies into texts? Would I be overshadowing other people’s work with my own words? Would me translating works be a supreme act of mansplaining? I don’t know what is right and legitimate for me to be doing, speaking, creating. I am lost, I am stuck, but I am keen to do good and be right. Even if I must silence myself, if that is the best thing to do I want to do it. If speaking louder and liberal is more helpful, I’ll do that, but I don’t think it is. I don’t think my voice is legitimate, whatever it’s saying, but I do not think that’s a problem. Am I wasting people’s time even with this? I don’t know what I should do, but I don’t want to accidentally oppress anyone. I try, every day, to not be a prick. Is that all it comes down to? I don’t know.

Anyway, Closely Observed Trains is a good book. Sad, moving, engaging. Old-fashioned sexual politics, women as sexualised symbols rather than people, but as a book about the everyman’s response to the indignity of occupation, it is successful. It’s also less than 100 pages, so gains points for brevity. Give it a read if you’ve got an hour and a half or so.

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