Closely Watched Trains by Bhoumil Hrabal

I talk so much on here about books I was familiar with but hadn’t ever gotten around to reading, or books I’d heard of but didn’t know what they were about. Rarer on here are the books I’d never heard of. That’s one of the best things about this blog, running into something good that was totally outside anything I normally might have ready. That brings us this week to Closely Watched Trains by Bhoumil Hrabal.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for A. L. Kennedy)

Milos Hrma is a young man tending German trains in German occupied WWII Czechoslovakia. He is endlessly exposed to the war and the occupiers of his country, turning to fantasy to try to cope. His first sexual encounter is awkwardly bungled and he attempts suicide fearing that he is impotent.

I kneeled down and began to gather them up, and Mrs Lánská began picking them up, too, and while we were at it I told her why I’d slashed my wrists that time, because I wilted in Uncle Noneman’s studio, the studio with the notice saying: FINISHED IN FIVE MINUTES, because I was finished even before I began. And the station-master’s wife was silent now, holding the gander by the beak.

In a burst of glory he proves to himself that he is definitely a man and sacrifices himself to blow up a German ammunition train. That’s Closely Watched Trains, a tragically glorious coming of age where human sexual obsessions are inseparably interwoven with the best of human heroism in the face of oppression.

However, I’d be remiss if I just painted the book as sex, brutality, and heroism. There are only a small number of pages, but there’s more packed in there than that. There is as much sex as humor, humor sometimes bound up in the sex and/or the brutality.

Not to make a long story of it, they were on night duty together, and Dispatcher Hubička bowled Virginia over, and then turned up her skirt and printed all our station stamps, one after another, all over our telegraphist’s backside. Even the datestamp he stuck on here there!

*****

‘Now, Miss Virginia Svatá, pay particular attention how you answer,’ said Councillor Zednicek, getting up from his seat. ‘Before Dispatcher Hubička laid you down on the telegraph table, didn’t he place some constraint upon you? Didn’t he utter threats? Thrust you down by force?

‘Good gracious, no, why should he? I did it myself. I lay down myself … suddenly felt I wanted to lie down there, without anyone making me … and wait and see what would happen … ‘ said Virginia, laughing.

Comedy. Comedy, sex, tragedy, horror, heroism, dreams—the multifaceted nature of what it is to be who we are. All the things we are at once that can’t be separated no matter how much we’d like to think they can be.

Looking at the whole, Closely Watched Trains is some quite powerful prose. It’s tragic that I’d never even heard of it before. The sentences are dense, but purposefully so given the setting and subject. It’s a brutal situation, but impossibly intermingled with wit, lust, bravery, and humor. The result is that Closely Watched Trains is fast, moving, and intensely feeling.

The forward to my edition of the book discusses that some think Closely Watched Trains is watered down Hrabal, that he compromised his previous writing course in the face of the totalitarian regime in order to have it published. In that case, I really should check out some of Hrabal’s less ‘acceptable’ works. Those have got to be dynamite.

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