Our conventional idea of a well-constructed novel (or novella) has a narrative arc: beginning, middle and end, climax and resolution, an energetic plot dramatized by a protagonist and an antagonist with a conflict brewing between them. Good reading, but sometimes the structure’s too tidy for real life, where conflicts happen all the time, but resolution often sputters out like a damp firecracker. For writers of war stories, most modern wars have no “narrative arc” at all; they end not with surrender but with exhaustion, cease-fires and peace talks. The German writer Heinrich Böll knew this when he wrote his first novella The Train Was On Time. Germany was about to be defeated in World War II, and the only possible closure for his characters was death.
Published in 1949, the novella tells the story of Private Andreas, shipping out on a troop train to the eastern front. He’s aware that Germany is losing the war, and as the train leaves, he has an intimation that he’s bound to die. Because of the precision of the German trains, he’s convinced that he’ll be able to pinpoint both the exact time and the place of his death. He becomes obsessed with his imminent demise, and either in spite of, or because of what he knows is coming, every moment seems magnified in its importance, from the experience of eating sausage sandwiches packed for him by a chaplain to the card games and drinks shared with two other enlisted men.
Yet Andreas grows into a feverish awareness of the catastrophe that Germany has inflicted on the world. He drifts through memory in a dreamlike state, haunted by the imagined eyes of a woman he might have loved in France, praying at times for the suffering Jews until the line between dream and reality seems to dissolve. At last Andreas and his companions end up in a brothel on what he believes is the last night of his life. It seemed predictable at first that he’d fall in love with his companion Olina, but not a sentimental note is struck in this brief non-sexual relationship. The brothel is staffed by patriotic Polish women, and the Germans are no safer than the ladies. Love unfolds, but there’s a unsettling ending to this story, one that confronts us with the truth that all of us share the same fate. Trapped in the jaws of violent history, that fate can be especially cruel.
No doubt the writing of this parable was an act of conscience — both to expiate the crimes committed by Germany and to signal Böll’s concern for morality and justice. With or without a narrative arc, the tale’s untidy ending speaks the truth. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.
The Train Was On Time is by Heinrich Böll. This edition is translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz and published in Brooklyn, New York in 2011 by Melville House.