A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
What a curious little book. I got Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal a couple of Christmases ago, from my parents, after I added to my Amazon wishlist. And I added it because I read a glowing blog review… though I now don’t know which blog. Anyway – after a couple of years, it found its way – all 91 pages of it – to the top of my reading pile, and I read it without coming to any fixed conclusions what I think of it.
The novel was published in Czech in 1965 and was translated by Edith Pargeter – yes, that Edith Pargeter, of Cadfael fame. The main action concerns Miloš Hrma, a young apprentice on the railway, whose family is apparently notorious in the local area for being malingerers and shirkers. He is slightly paranoid about being thought this way himself, because it is the final days of the war and he isn’t fighting.
The war is very much taking place in and around the railway station A plane is shot down; a destroyed railway carriage stays in one of the sidings as a stark reminder of the fragility of life around them. It appears more humorously, too, albeit darkly humorously – at the outbreak of war (the narrator recalls), the pigeon-fancying stationmaster orders all his Nuremberg pigeons to be killed. At one point Miloš is briefly kidnapped by two SS guards, though that section rather confused me – but it did have some great writing about how he couldn’t believe anybody that handsome could be wicked. It’s an old trope, but Hrabal does it well. And we are thrown into the midst of war, while still remembering that the ordinary must continue.
I ran out on to the platform. There was another close-surveillance transport running through on the main line. All the fellows sunning themselves there on the tanks were young boys, just like myself, some of them even younger; one lot was tossing a green ball about in the sun, and on another tank they were singing: Ich hab mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren… 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 town,s houses, heaps of dead. But just here, and now, and this, they hadn’t been expecting…
For so short a work, Closely Observed Trains is almost dizzyingly episodic. We get that brief kidnap, we get scandal among the station staff, we even get Miloš nervously trying to end his virginity. It’s all a bit bewildering, because the tone is somehow still gentle, observational, slow. Hrabal combines the fast-paced with the reflective in a skilled and unusual fashion – and I think it confuses me because I couldn’t quite work out what I was reading. Which is the mark of an exciting author, of course!
I would certainly read more by Hrabal, and I’d be intrigued to know if his other books are similar. And I’d also like to re-read this one someday – slower, drawing in more of that writing style, and wondering quite how he did it…