Top positive review
Review of All Quiet on the Western Front
on 30 August 2015
All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
Brian Murdoch, the translator, has given us in his Afterword an excellent starting point for discussing this book. I refer to it as a ‘book’ because to call it a novel suggests something less horrific in terms of subject matter than what we find in All Quiet on the Western Front.
Brian Murdoch affirms that the key structure of the book is the contrast between terror and death set against the irrepressible ‘spark of life’. There is a secondary thematic idea in the novel, namely the opposition between youth and age as shown in the references to Kantorek, the boys’ teacher and to other older people Paul Baumer meets when on leave. They regard the soldiers as heroes who are sure to win. We are also shown the contrast between experienced older soldiers and the younger raw recruits at the front line.
These thematic points bring the book into focus as a novel as opposed to a documentary or historical account. Nevertheless it contains features of documentary in that its realism is so vivid. This is due, of course, to the fact that Remarque drew on his own experiences in the trenches. The horrors he describes give the book a strong degree of polemicism or implied denunciation of war itself. But the book’s novelistic qualities are further based round its varied characters, their qualities, idiosyncrasies, and actions, as in any novel.
It is also, of course a tragic novel on several levels: all the main characters die, almost all of terrible wounds and their after effects. The tragic features spread from the battlefield to the families at home and to the sacrifices forced on the population by hunger and the futility of the war itself. It is reflected, too, in the degradation of human relations as shown in the soldiers’ visit to the brothel in the village, though this is presented partly in terms of comic adventure.
One scene in particular encapsulates the ideas of futility, life and death, heroism that arises from fear, and pity. This is the scene that shows the one scene of hand-to-hand fighting when Paul, in his terror of death stabs one of ‘the others’ (we are deliberately not told directly of his nationality) and then tries to save his life, while the man dies a slow and agonising death in spite of these efforts. The near anonymity of the ‘others’ who are seldom referred to as enemies or by nationality, is another implied idea to show that the futility of war is not restricted to one side or the other.
Overall, this book, while making gripping, if depressing reading, is, nevertheless, virtually a ‘must read’ if we are to understand and ultimately abandon war.
R Barton 19th August 2015