Friday, November 26, 2010
Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.
Can you believe it? They can DANCE! Home, Geilston Bay. November 2010.
Four books this week, and all good ‘uns! The first is a short novel –perhaps better known as a film – from a master of Czech literature Bohumil Hrabal Closely Observed Trains.
Set in [then German-occupied] Czechoslovakia in 1945, the war is turning against the Germans and the presence of the Red Army looms not too far away. The story focuses on the life of one train controller, who has just be released back to work after an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the wake of a little premature ejaculation-incident. So straightforward then.
The ever-approaching war soon means that the morning trains arrive at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the timetable, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.
For such a short novel, Hrabal crams in a huge variety of characters and subjects, from pigeon fancying, official railway stamps as seduction-tool, welfare cheats, to the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although an effective comic novel, the narrative builds in the end to a touchingly sober and devastating climax. I will not give you any spoilers.
This is a tale about heroism of ordinary people, not about epic feats. Heaven forbid, it is touching and realistic, yet never cloying. This is a great little book, definitely worth the trouble reading.
The second is another powerful little novel, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by 1972 Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll. Again, like Trains it may be better known as a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner.
Given that it is essentially a polemic railing against the sensationalism of tabloid news and the political climate of panic over Red Army Faction terrorism in the 1970s West Germany, you might think that would seem dated. However, as with most good literature, it is much more than that. It presents a searching analysis of post-war, urbanised and bourgeois German society.
Structurally disjointed with a shifting narrative, getting through the first part can be a hard slog. That said, the effort is rewarded.
Then we have a philosophical exploration of London’s bus system – The Maintenance of Headway – by the always-excellent Magnus Mills. This one is definitely a keep for anyone who uses public transport, but like the other two books I’ve mentioned, it’s more than that.
In the usual Mills’ style, it is a subtle meditation on the dangers of trying to impose order in a fundamentally chaotic world. As ever, he writes in a very relaxed style, which lends very well to giving readers the necessary space to reflect. You know he has triumphed when even I can calmly accept the central thesis – essentially a celebration of the beauty of chaos – with a smile.
It is a good read. Check it out.
Lastly, we have another from Heinrich Böll, Soldier’s Legacy. This was his first novel, but remained unpublished for forty years. Semi-autobiographical, it is a good description of military service, with an emphasis on the excruciating boredom of life on the coast of occupied France, waiting for something to happen. Then they get sent to the Eastern Front.
Written in 1947, it is a very German book. The story is infused with a post-war resentment of officers who survived; based on a theme that the decent and intelligent died, and explores the nature of obedience and resistance within the structure of army life.
You can tell it’s written by someone at the beginning of establishing their craft, but in some ways it makes it all the more interesting.