Closely Observed Trains written by Bohumil Hrabal is considered one of the greatest Czech and European writers of the 20th century. His books are translated into 27 languages. The short novel was the basis of one of the most popular new wave movies made in the 60’s. He died in the late 1990’s possibly by suicide and had to struggle through the long oppression of the communist regime with many of his books having to be smuggled out to be published.
However this is not some worthy political diatribe but an earthy sensual satire that contrasts the bumbling humour of the Czechs and the crudity and repression of the local Nazis as the German front collapse at the end of the war. The opening scene is of a shot down aeroplane wing fluttering into the town and causing panic in the streets. From this we learn about the Hrma family, Great Grandfather who had a war pension from 18 and would drink a bottle of rum and smoke a pack of cigars a day in from of the local workers to show how easy he had it until finally beaten to death in his 80’s, a grandfather who tried to hypnotise the Germans invaders to stop, and a father who had served on the railways for 25 years before he retired to be the village holder of lost and abandoned objects.
And finally we meet Milos Hrma the teenage railway apprentice on the way to work at the local railway station after a 3 month sick leave. He is acutely aware of the town’s view that the whole family are scroungers and wastrels. The sick leave was because he had tried to commit suicide after failing to “rise to the occasion” with his first love as he feared that the eyes of the town were on him.
Milos is one of Hrabal's "wise fools" - simpletons with occasional or inadvertent profound thoughts - who are also given to coarse humour, lewdness, and a determination to survive and enjoy oneself despite harsh circumstances. As he rejoins work he walks into a crisis. It appears that the station dispatcher –a sex mad woman’s man had used the entire official stamps one night to stamp the bum of the female telegraphist. As these were in German, this prompts the investigation of the way that the station was being run much to the frustration of the bumbling pigeon fancier station master ambitions. In the resulting chaos of events Milos gets to achieve sexual maturity and political maturity as he finally makes a moving and heroic stand against the Germans.
The novel is less then 100 pages but each of the characters spring of the page and the underlying politics are hinted rather then laid on with a trowel. For example the horror of this time is mainly conveyed with subtle quiet descriptions of the trains and their passengers passing through the station- a hospital train from the front passing a train with fresh troops on the way to the front or the state of the animals stranded on delayed trains. Its real targets were off course the Communists and the need to take a stand against them which the Czechs did in 68 and in the 90’s to gain their freedom in the velvet revolution. But don’t worry about the politics. Instead enjoy the story and writing that paints pictures in your mind with memorable scenes and humour leaving you desperate to see the film and read more of his books. Highly recommended.