Closely Observed Trains (or Closely Watched Trains) – Bohumil Hrabal

[I wrote about this novella in two parts. Along the way, I made comparisons with Jiri Menzel’s film, which I also watched in two parts.]

15 June 2017
The first three chapters – to Finished in five minutes
I remember seeing Jiri Menzel’s film decades ago, when it was often shown in art-house cinemas in celebration of the short-lived Czech new wave of the 1960s. In it, as in the novella, a railway station in the middle of nowhere becomes the location for small-scale human stories set against a background of the cruel, chaotic final months of Nazi occupation. The characters don’t know that the war will end soon – it’s the winter of 1945 – and they continue to get through each day as best they can. There doesn’t seem to be any great hardship in this obscure neck of the woods, so different characters focus on their own concerns: ambitions, love, sex – there’s a lot of sex, usually as chaotic as everything else and forming a kind of comic backdrop – and the pains of growing into manhood. I remember the film as being like a more frankly satirical version of something by Jacques Tati, mocking the absurdities of ordinary people’s behaviour. The absurdities in the novella have a far harder edge.

At first, we think we know where we are. It’s 1945 and the Nazis have lost air supremacy over Czechoslovakia. But even before the end of the first paragraph we’re getting ludicrous details: now, train timetables are so disrupted that if one appears to be on time it’s really the previous one running four hours late. And ‘the day before yesterday’ a German plane was shot down, its detached wing circling so slowly there’s time for people to scurry from one side of the town square to the other as it spins. Soon the fuselage of the plane, some distance away, is stripped of all its useful metal – but, surprisingly, its cockpit clock still ticks and there, underneath, is the body of the pilot. It isn’t the only ticking the narrator hears – he swears he can hear it in the snow-crystals all around – and it becomes an ongoing memento mori.

It’s the narrator who discovers the body, and it upsets him. But the event is tucked away inside a brief history of the men in his family, a lot of it tinged with that hard-edged absurdity. His great-grandfather, invalided out of the army on a generous pension, was notorious in the town for mocking the poor saps who had to work while he drank and smoked all day. In his old age he was finally beaten to death. His son, a hypnotist – another way to avoid real work, the townsfolk used to say – met his end by trying to mesmerise the invading tanks. The first stops, then rolls over him – only for his detached head, lodged in its tracks, to bring it to a standstill. How we laughed.

And so on. The narrator, Milos, is about to start back at work after a three-month leave of absence. In this universe, a railway employee who attempts suicide is nursed back to health with no questions asked. But Milos, suffering the self-consciousness of adolescence into his twenties, thinks everyone stares at him and his scars, assuming that he cut his wrists to avoid work like the rest of his family. (His father might once have been a hard-working train-driver, but he has managed to retire before the age of 50 and now does nothing all day.) Milos’s self-consciousness is absurd, but real enough to make him want to end his life. Which would have brought the total of deaths in the first chapter to four – not including the animals. I’ll come back to the deaths of animals because Hrabal does, all the time.

So. There’s Milos, at the bottom of a very small heap, with two men ranked above him. All three of them have relationships with women, and… I’ll come back to them too: although this is a male world, the women seem largely unimpressed both by the men in it and their self-aggrandising hierarchies. Lansky, the station-master, cuts as ludicrous a figure as you would expect as he dreams of climbing higher up the pole. He has an inspector’s uniform already made, complete with bigger, better star – and, like the dutiful apprentice he is, Milos reminds him that the rank is equivalent to that of a major in the army. It come as a reminder that there’s a war on….

The absurdity of Lansky is almost unending. He keeps pigeons, not the Nuremburgs he kept before the Nazi invasion of Poland, but the Polish Silverpoints that are now his only true loves. (The Nuremburgs had been his true loves until he had all their necks wrung while he was away buying new ones as an act of solidarity.) He often stands with them perched on his head and shoulders, where they are thrown into panicked flapping by his violent changes of mood. He shouts a lot, but not at the people who anger him. His tirades against the collapse of modern morals ought to be directed at his second in command, a communications officer or ‘dispatcher’ called Hubicka whose lewd behaviour means that he has never achieved any promotions – as Lansky gleefully reminds Milos. But he vents his fury, literally, by shouting into an air-duct.

Hubicka’s most recent atrocity is to have covered the naked bottom of a female clerk with railway-issue rubber stamps. She has had to go to headquarters, where members of the top brass have examined the damning evidence at first-hand. Now, photographs are being passed around like samizdat. Worse, Milos is able to tell Lansky that the same man once tore a railway-issue station-master’s couch by miscalculating a particularly athletic act of passion on a different woman. A station-master’s couch! (Milos actually witnessed the aftermath, the naked woman sprawled on the couch like this – he demonstrates the pose – and it sums up his life. He’s never managed to be a participant.)

We’re getting the tone now. Ridiculous men are tolerated by the Germans because they keep the trains running, just, and by women because… well, we’re not sure why. Lansky’s wife usually ignores her husband’s tirades, but every few months she will throw something heavy at him or, as at Christmas, throw him into the bath with the carp awaiting its fate as the centrepiece of their festive dinner. She is the one who was content to wring the pigeons’ necks – just as she is content to hold in her lap the rabbits whose throats she slits before letting them bleed to death. And don’t ask about her forced fattening and slaughter of the geese.

Things happen. First, there’s a flashback to a clue about Milos’s attempted suicide. It’s to do with Masha, the girl that Milos has told us he loves, as he describes a long fence-painting duty that he and she had to carry out some months before. After many weeks, and something like four kilometres, their faces are exactly opposite one another, and… they kiss as well as anyone can with the wet paint of a fence between them. (In the film, Hubicka sees the two trying to kiss – she is a conductor, leaning back from the step of a train while Milos strains on tip-toes to reach her lips with his – and he signals for the train to start before they can do it.) Later, while he is staying at her uncle’s house, they have the opportunity to have sex – but, at the key moment, Milos wilts. Now, he thinks he can’t be a man – and the attempted suicide is described in some detail….

Next – in fact, several times during the narrative – we’re offered clues about a different hierarchy. This is the remnant of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, in the form of the local countess with the nice arse. (I wouldn’t have mentioned it, except that Hubicka does, contemplating it as she rides away. Arse or tits, either will do for him – and the countess, as he reminds Milos, has both.) She comes to the station to say something to Lansky about his invitation to the big house, and he is as obsessed with this kind of rank as he is with any other. Everyone knows that he can trace his own ancestry back to the aristocracy. And we have been told that before the death of the countess’s husband, one of his ‘half-thoroughbred’ horses won at Aintree. He used the money to build a glorious Rococo cinema… which was never opened and is now a grain-store, always referred to as ‘Liverpool’. Don’t ask me why I’m telling you this. Because Milos does, I suppose.

Nearly done, for now…. On his fateful first day back, I think – the chronology is vague – Milos accidentally delays one of the ‘closely observed trains’ the Germans send through from time to time. He is arrested by SS men ‘so beautiful they should have been poets’ – but there’s nothing poetic about the guns lodged under his ribs as they take him on board the train. There is something terribly arbitrary about Nazi justice, somehow symbolised by the three dead horses recently thrown from another train, their hooves pointing at the sky. Milos expects to die, and he isn’t too upset by the idea… until the captain in charge, with an ugly scar across his mouth, notices the scars on the prisoner’s wrists. He points to his own scar, saying ‘Kamerad,’ and releases Milos. Taking a rest on the long walk back to the station, Milos sits down on the stomach of one of the horses, the dead eyes of another one of them appearing to stare at him. He muses on how things turn out, and it becomes part of the bleak humour of Hrabal’s vision of men in wartime…

…and the chapter isn’t over yet. In another flashback he goes ‘back to the beginning of all this.’ We get a description of the place where Milos used to stay, Masha’s uncle’s photography studio. ‘Finished in five minutes’ says the sign, and Milos sleeps beneath the customers’ favourite backcloth – a plane in flight. We should have taken it for an ominous sign – we know what happens to planes in this universe – and, out of the blue, the shock of a bomb falling nearby blows them all out of the building. Masha and her aunt come flying through from the back room, trying to keep their skirts down, but it seems there are to be no deaths this time. As people laugh crazily on the street, a bystander remarks on the sign, which has survived. It has a whole different meaning now.

As for the film…. It’s similar in tone and content, except for almost all the hardness. There’s nothing about Milos’s failed sexual encounter, his subsequent attempted suicide or most of the deaths. Admittedly, in a comic photo montage near the beginning, with Milos providing the voice-over, we get the black comedy of how his grandfather and great-grandfather met their ends. Otherwise it’s the human comedy with the dark side largely ignored. There’s little or no back-story in the film so far, the action taking place on Milos’s first day at work rather than on his return after a suicide attempt. And instead of being presented as a traumatic failure, his virginity is gently mocked. When he tries to follow some German soldiers into a stationary carriage being used as a nurses’ dormitory, the door is firmly closed against him by a half-naked nurse who wants to keep their activities private. How we laughed, again.

20 June
The next three chapters – to the end
These chapters are far darker than the first three. There are still absurdities, but as the narrative moves closer to its unexpectedly bleak climax, there are more likely to be horrors than anything else. Milos becomes a man – this never ceases to be a male world, even though the woman who ‘helps to rub the velvet off his antlers’ – I’m not making this up – seems more like a mother to him before she becomes his first ever sexual partner. It isn’t Masha, who he hopes to see in two days’ time, primed and ready for action. I’ll come back to who it is, because she is inextricably linked to the event that ends the story for Milos.

At first, we seem to be in the same faintly ridiculous world as before. Lansky parades on the platform, proudly showing off his pigeons to train-drivers who are only there to catch a glimpse of the now almost legendary Hubicka. They have seen, or at least they have heard about the rubber-stamp photographs – and, I realise, pictures are often at least as powerful as reality in this world. That aeroplane backdrop offers added glamour and, in the final chapter, a childhood photograph Milos had given Masha now has a similar childhood photograph of her pasted to the back of it. In his mind, it becomes a symbol of how close to her he dreams of being. But then, isn’t there always something a little childish about their so-called love? Perhaps it’s no surprise that Milos reaches the fulfilment of his dream without any help from her….

As Lansky spends quality time in the loft with the pigeons, wearing his droppings-covered old uniform, a feared inspector arrives unannounced. It leads to another scene in the comedy that is life on this station, as he is sarcastic about Lansky’s pretentiously furnished office and makes him keep the old uniform on. He is there with the female clerk as a witness, to decide what kind of offence was committed while her bottom was being stamped. There’s a kind of mock trial, with Lansky taking notes – and nothing comes of it. She cheerfully admits that she did all of it of her own accord, and the inspector tries to make something of the near-treason of having stamps with German words used in such a way…. He’s already delivered a preposterous lecture on how the Reich’s army will soon destroy all the enemy forces – he has a map worn as full of holes as the Reich’s war strategy – and soon he leaves on his railway trolley.

It’s from now on that the tone gets darker. We’ve already seen an abandoned passenger train, moved to a siding after having been almost shot to pieces by partisans, and now there are worse reminders of the war. Milos’s sympathy for animals is tested to the limit by the sight of a cattle train, eight days on the line, full of dead and dying animals. Then he hears stories of how starving sheep in other wagons are eating one another’s fleeces, and of how a bull, with its knees already broken, is pacified by having its eyes put out. It isn’t only animals – there is a flashback to his time in hospital, where his aunt (I think), a nurse, is in charge of German soldiers burnt too badly to have any chance of recovery. He feels for these young men, to each of whom she administers a merciful overdose of morphine when their suffering becomes too awful.

And the war intrudes in a more immediate way. There turns out to be more meaning in the title of the book than we thought, and more to Hubicka than we might have thought too. He takes Milos aside and tells him about a big ammunitions train due to arrive the next night. Imagine if it could be blown up! Milos, ever the wide-eyed innocent, agrees to help… and I’ll come back to that, because this decision defines the direction of the final quarter of the book. But we’re not there yet, because…

…he has other things on his mind. Or, as we know well by this time, one particular thing. Masha is now a train conductor, and we see where Menzel got the idea for that teasing scene in which they just fail to kiss. In the book, the kiss succeeds – and Masha reassures Milos that ‘the day after tomorrow’ she will show him how she has learnt how to prevent another disappointment. I’ve described this as a male world, and of course it is – everything about the running of the railways and the conduct of the war confirms it. Meanwhile, Hrabel’s admiringly gallant descriptions of how women cope with the routines of daily life and the routine crassness of men establishes them as a subtly different species. When the men have finished making a mess or finish their important duties for the day, women service their needs as only women can. It’s a very 1960s brand of patronising faux feminism, and women are sexually available, unless they are your mother or they are old. Or unless you are Milos. Unlike Hubicka, he can’t playfully insinuate himself into a female employee’s knickers…. What’s a desperate young man to do, with only two days before he is expected to perform like a man?

Aside from Milos’s mother, referred to more often than you might expect for the care she lavishes on her son, there is only one other woman who he thinks might be able to advise him. Really, she’s another mother-figure – the only kind of woman he’s comfortable with, it seems – the stationmaster’s wife. But, despite his having placed her hand on his trouser-front to confirm that he really is a man – I’m not making this up, either – she can’t help him. She has passed the time in a woman’s life when she no longer thinks about sex…. So who can he turn to? There are less than two days for him rub that pesky velvet from his antlers and, as he is constantly reminded, that closely observed train is due the following night….

The partisan who passes over the all-important time-bomb that will set off the explosion goes by the name of Viktoria Freie, and her name turns out to have a special significance for Milos. She is a beautiful, sexually available woman, which is lucky – and it’s even luckier that Hubicka, for the first time in Milos’s experience, is too nervous about the planned sabotage to think about anything else. The woman pretends to need a rest after her long journey, lures Milos to the stationmaster’s couch… and things couldn’t possibly go any better than they do. She is charmed by his naivety, loves the idea that he is a virgin – and, when the time comes for him to take off his clothes, ‘she was kind to me, like when I was a little boy and my mother used to dress and undress me, she even allowed me to help her pull up her skirt….’ For a moment we might think this refers to the mother’s skirt – I’m sure the ambiguity is deliberate – but, thankfully, no. Milos, comfortable with a woman for the first time since childhood, can at last become a man – and the tear in the couch proves it.

Next morning, he is blissful. All his troubles seem to have fallen from his shoulders, and everyone notices. For the first time it’s Milos, he thinks calmly, who is the man now. And… Hrabel could now have taken the story in one of several directions. Milos could successfully drop the timed charge on to the train as planned, wait for the explosion, and rejoice along with everyone else in these dying days of the war. He could meet Masha next day, and reap the rewards of adult life fully lived. Perhaps, if post-war history had been different, a Czech writer in the 1960s might have chosen this happy future for his shy hero.

But no. It all goes well, right up to the successful dropping of the charge on to the fourteenth wagon of the 28 being pulled to the war-zone. Milos is confident, crouched high up behind the signal he had lowered in order to slow down the train. He has the revolver that Viktoria Freie has also passed to Hubicka, and can now wait for the explosion to happen. But, since the joy of his sexual awakening the previous night – and linked inextricably with it – the realities of war have intruded themselves. At the moment of his orgasm, the earth had seemed to move… because it had. Over the border in Germany, there had been such a huge explosion that the sky glows, all these miles away. And, shortly after, pyjama-clad figures in a state of shock emerge from a train that has just arrived from Dresden. Ah. And, unlike with those burns victims in the hospital ward (it’s at this moment when we are first told about them) Milos feels no sympathy. He seems to be with the railwayman who speaks to them sarcastically: ‘Sollten Sie am Arsch zu Hause sitzen.’

This terrible new world – Hrabel has witnesses describing the horrors of the carpet-bombing, turning Dresden into ‘one torch’ – is the one in which the sabotage of the explosives train takes place. As its last wagon passes under him, Milos sees that there is a little hut at the end of it. Light from a torch flashes up at him, then the glint of a rifle – and he fires his pistol as the guard fires his rifle. And instead of a final triumphant beginning to his adult life, the last seven or eight pages of the book are about the bitter reality of death. The guard has fallen, wounded but still alive, into a ditch. Milos, his overcoat ripping and breaking his fall, ends up next to him, also still alive. He has been shot through a lung, and is bleeding to death. The guard, on his side, makes arcs with his feet in the snow – that ticking snow! – as he seems to try to march to his own death and mumbles ‘Mutti! Mutti!’ at every step. He has been shot in the gut, and his death will not come quickly. (Is he really thinking of his mother? Milos doubts it, deciding that this man must be thinking of the mother of his children. Milos himself, inevitably, thinks of his mother waiting in vain for his return. He doesn’t think of Masha.)

It’s all horrifying. Milos, coughing up blood, finds he can reach the enemy soldier who, he knows, might have been a friend in other circumstances. He finds a shamrock medallion around the man’s neck, with ‘Good luck’ embossed in German on the back. But that marching, marching…. He tries to tie the man’s feet together, and it works for a short while. Then he finds he can reach one of the guns and he shoots the man in the chest. It doesn’t stop him, so this time he holds the barrel to the man’s eye. It leaves ‘a hole like a blue monocle,’ and the marching comes to an end at last. The train has exploded in the distance by now, but there is no triumph in it. The final words of this narrator, and of the book, are a wry memory of what the railwayman said to the Dresden refugees: ‘You should have sat at home on your arse….’

Milos dies in the film, too, but it feels very different. In fact, while the second half includes almost all of the absurd details of these people’s lives – the mock trial of Hubicka is in there, as is the humiliation of the droppings-covered stationmaster and the charitable Viktoria Freie – most of the harsher details are again omitted. There are exceptions – the second half is less of a knockabout comedy than the first – and we are finally shown the failed sexual encounter with Masha and the subsequent suicide attempt. But there is no Dresden bombing, and only a passing reference (by another railwayman) to the callous transportation of animals. And there are no agonisingly slow deaths. Instead, a burst of machine-gun fire from the train leads to poor Milos clutching his belly, and he flops down on to the hammock-like canvas covering of a wagon.  Then we are back at the station, where everybody, including Masha, hears the explosion and is caught in the rush of air that follows it. Every one of them – Lansky, Hubicka, Masha and others – smiles broadly. In Menzel’s more merciful universe, perhaps reflecting the more hopeful mood leading up to the Prague Spring, they don’t need to know yet what has happened to Milos. And when they do, it will no doubt seem worthwhile.

I imagine that Menzel would have been surprised to learn that two years after his film was finished, tanks would be entering his country again. For Hrabel, on the other hand, I could imagine that he never believed they really left.

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