Tag Archives: Germany

Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was On Time.

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.


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Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone

I’ve just finished reading an astounding five-hundred-page novel called Every Man Dies Alone by the German writer Hans Fallada. The book was written in 1947, but was only translated into English two years ago. What took them so long??? This compelling and inspiring page-turner was written — believe it or not — in the space of twenty-four days by a man who’d spent much of the Second World War confined to a Nazi insane asylum. As one of the first novels to emerge from that dark period of history, it has a stunning, frightening immediacy. To read it is to experience with all five senses what living in Nazi Germany must have felt like. You might choose, as I did, to read this book on the beach, because now and again it helps to look up at the beauty of the day, to keep yourself anchored in the real and present world.

Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple in Berlin who decided to resist Hitler by writing messages of protest on hundreds of postcards, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage and by distributing these notes all over the city.  It was their hope that other citizens would pass the missives around and begin to act against the regime. It didn’t work out, either in fact or in fiction. Cowed and terrified by the Nazis, Berliners found the cards and turned almost all of them over to the police, yet even so, it took two and a half years before the couple were arrested. They were sentenced to death.

Knowing the bleak outcome, you may wonder why you’d want to read this book. To me, their simple act of resistance — as futile as it seemed —  was so stunning and so unheard of that I couldn’t help feeling that it deserved to be honoured through my reading. To read the saga of the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel is to rescue their deeds from oblivion and death. To read their story is to bear witness to the courage of people who speak the truth, even at the cost of their own lives. Is it a good read? And how. It’s both an action-packed thriller and a novel of ideas — about courage, truth-telling, moral integrity and the wisdom of a peaceful life in the face of sadism, cruelty, and stupidity. Most astonishing of all is the huge range of twenty or more distinctive characters. From the taciturn Otto Quangel to the conflicted cop Escherich, from Hetty the Gestapo-hating pet-shop owner to Eva the postal worker who delivers a form letter to the Quangels announcing the death of their soldier-son, each of these people is well-crafted, memorable, complex, and, by turns, profound, despicable and occasionally funny.

Every Man Dies Alone is a disturbing novel, but it’s a powerful affirmation of life, and the care Fallada took to delineate and enliven his characters stands as a confrontation of the savagery and inhumanity that his people endured. Don’t miss this book. Read it in sunlight, on a beautiful day. That’s Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman, published in 2009 by Melville House Publishing.

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