Earlier this year I reviewed three books issued republished as part of the Imperial War Museum’s excellent Wartime Classics series. Eight hours from England, Trial by Battle and From the City, From the Plough tell stories both extraordinary and ordinary about British forces extraordinary and ordinary. Closely Watched Trains should be read alongside them although it is quite different: it was first published in Czechoslovakia in 1965, it concerns the Czechoslovak resistance (and their colleagues and neighbours), and rather than describing their real experiences in 1945, Bohumil Hrabal provides us with a tale which is fantastic, silly, surreal, absurd – and remarkably touching. (Edith Pargeter has done a fine job in translation.) But this is not a comedy, or a parody: it is too warm.
There are times, reading fiction, when you feel that this character or that doesn’t fully claim their creator’s full sympathy. Sometimes, a character may be a cardboard cut out, or the tales of their bad behaviour might be presented with just a bit too much relish. Not all plots require all characters to be fully-rounded – and some demand characters to be really appalling – but I like it when authors show you creations that are both flawed and loved.
Hrabal really loves his characters, even as he has them flounder about. Even as you roll your eyes at some nonsense, you smile with the characters. The protagonist, Milos, is described on the back cover as ‘bumbling’ and that is almost his finest hour. Almost. Because although Milos’ head is full of cotton wool and his days spent daydreaming about his colleague Masha, he and his colleagues and fellow villagers represent everyone in ordinary society whose ordinariness had been disrupted by war. They were not, nor did they see themselves as, heroes. But it is impossible to work your way through Closely Watched Trains and not feel that they should have been left alone, not necessarily content but comfortable in their surroundings, in their ridiculous endeavours, rather than having to re-take their homeland. The last chapter is gentle, and kind, and shocking, all at the same time.
Closely Watched Trains is a beautiful, short, generous and compassionate contribution to the war canon.