Closely Watched Trains (Bohumil Hrabal)

Set in 1945 in a Czech town, the Germans are on the back foot, but they are still making their presence felt. These German–closely watched– trains still pass through the train station and are given priority in passage. We follow the exploits of the station staff. The central figure is the hapless Milos Hrma, an unassuming, insecure young man with an embarrassing family history. He works at the station along with larger than life characters, including the pigeon-covered station master Lansky, the randy, libidinous dispatcher Hubicka, the floozy telegraphist Virginia and the conductress Masha. Despite their foibles and absurdities, there is a touch of longing and vulnerability which makes them human and worthy of empathy.

Bohumil Hrabal is a great story teller. His inimitable style is evident from the first page. It is cheeky, hilarious, irreverent, naughty and ribald. But it is not all lightheartedness and he can give his tales a darker, more somber spin. The amazing thing is how he hides the gruesomeness amidst the frivolity, presenting catastrophic events innocuously and how he manages to change the tone of the book without being noticed.

The writing is choppy and full of clauses and is marked by the sudden appearance of dream sequences and similar flights of fancy intended to reflect the main character’s state of mind, all or some of which may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Much stock is put in the eccentric habits of the characters more than in the narrative itself. Our narrator, Milos, comes from a long line of layabout losers, and the book traces his journey from schlub to hero, although the outcome of that journey and fulfillment of self worth comes with a heavy price.

Seems he can’t get it up and get it off for his best girl, Masha, and in a state of resulting depression he tries to kill himself. Hrma looks up to his senior colleague, the dispatcher Mr. Hubicka, who seems to have a telfon skin to which nothing sticks. Young Hrma admires his confident mentor’s accomplishments with the ladies, even the latter’s apparent ability to evade punishment for sexual harassment of their train-station colleague, Virginia.

The station is run by a junior-league Napoleon, Mr. Lansky, who berates his decent wife and has love for nothing but his loyal loft of cooing pigeons and his overstuffed office furniture. In describing certain incidents, including the cruelty to farm animals being freighted to slaughter–which obviously is meant to parallel the concurrent barbarities of the second world war–Hrabal is grimly effective. War, tragedy and humourous youthful sexual burlesque rarely go out of style, and taken together, if written well (as Hrabal does), the tragedy and humour amplify one other. I couldn’t put this book down until the final, blood-drenched, page.

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