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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books)
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Bohumil Hrabal’s wonderful tale is always a pleasure to read, although for many it is probably the film made of this that is most familiar. Narrated by Miloš Hrma an apprentice on the railway, this story is touching but also funny.

Opening with a German plane being shot down Hrabal gives us comedy as the locals run about trying not to be hit by a wing, and then taking what remains of the plane to pieces for such things as new roofs for rabbit hutches.

In some ways Miloš is like that well known character Švejk, here coming of age and wanting to live an apparently carefree life. After all we read of his dad and his early retirement, his granddad, a mesmerist who unfortunately cannot stop the onset of the Nazi war machine, and his great granddad, who was a waster. But we do see that beneath this attitude is actually someone who is damaged mentally.

With lots of incident this does read like a series of anecdotes but for Hrabal this is probably the most cohesive of his tales for us English. The author liked to listen to those tales people told when drinking in taverns and in many ways this reads like that, and thus you don’t find yourself minding the jumping about.

With some very memorable characters, and an incident involving a female member of staff having her bum stamped with the rubber stamps laying around in the booking hall office, this book will certainly have you laughing in places. And having worked on the railways myself some of the incidents are quite well believable.

Short and admittedly not to the taste of everyone, this does make for some good tragicomic reading.
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on 27 April 2017
Not what I anticipated
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on 7 November 2011
Hrabal's short novella "Closely Observed Trains" is set in a railway station in a small town in Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1945. Although the war is coming to an end, the country is still under German occupation, and the book's title refers to the special military trains which need to be kept under close guard as they travel to the front.

The central character, Milos Hrma, is a young apprentice traffic controller, and the opening scenes of the book tend towards the comic, as Milos describes the attempts of his colleagues to get on with their everyday lives, seemingly oblivious to the historic events taking place around them. Milos's boss, Station-Master Lansky, is a ridiculous figure, obsessed with promoting himself both in the social hierarchy (he lays claim to aristocratic lineage) and in the hierarchy of the Czech railway system. Despite his eagerness for promotion, however, he pays more attention to his hobby of pigeon breeding than he does to the requirements of his job. Lansky's subordinate, Dispatcher Hubicka, is equally neglectful of his duties, although his main obsession is pursuing women; he is facing disciplinary proceedings for the offence of misusing Government property by using the station's official stamps to decorate the backside of an attractive young female telegraphist.

As the story progresses, it takes on a darker tone. We learn that Milos has recently returned to work after three months in hospital following an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. The cause of this attempt was depression brought on by impotence and his inability to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend. The latter part of the book has two themes- his continuing obsession with losing his virginity and the plot he forms with Hubicka to help the Czech Resistance by destroying one of the Germans' special trains.

The expression "tragi-comedy" is perhaps over-used in literary criticism, being all too often a category to enable the lazy critic to pigeonhole works that resist neat pigeonholing- certain of Shakespeare's plays, for example. It seems to me, however, that the adjective "tragi-comic" is indeed an appropriate one to use about "Closely Observed Trains" because of the contrast between the tragic situation of the Czech people under the German occupation and the many comic incidents that take place, such as Hubicka's adventures with the telegraphist, or Lansky's habit of shouting his criticism of the morals of society down the ventilation shaft in the station kitchen. The same incident, indeed, may have both comic and serious overtones, as when Lansky, in protest against the German invasion of Poland, kills his German pigeons and replaces them with Polish ones- an act both cruel and ridiculous. The book is full of gruesome but absurd details, such as the three dead horses thrown from a train and left by the railway lines. This is a book of less than a hundred pages, but Hrabal is able to fill that space with a fantastic amount of detail, both trivial and serious.

The central theme of the book is the various strategies people use to survive in the tragic circumstances of war and occupation- courageous acts of resistance, petty acts of defiance (such as using the metal from a downed German plane to roof rabbit-hutches and chicken-coops) and continuing to pursue the trivia of existence. Sometimes they use a mixture of all three. One can easily see why the Communist authorities disliked Hrabal's work; they had no objection to tales of heroic deeds in the fight against fascism, but these had to be viewed through the simplistic ideology of Marxism-Leninsm and placed in the context of the class struggle. Hrabal's world was more complex and less ideological. There is a place for courage in that world, but also a place for compromise and for the apolitical details of everyday life. Seen in this context, Milos's bravery seems both more impressive and the book's ending more poignant. This is a fine piece of writing and, given that it was written under Communist rule, a brave one.
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VINE VOICEon 22 February 2006
In spite of their brevity, I think that Bohumil Hrabal's books are deeply beautiful. There are numerous reasons for this relating to the clear, concise and almost poetic nature of his prose, but I think that the main reason is that his books reflect an outlook or an attitude towards life that revels in the simple and profound beauty of human idiosyncracy.
I've heard it said that some believe Hrabal's books to be untranslatable - so I can only imagine what it must be like reading them in Czech!
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It is hard to think of anywhere in literature where there is a hero more astonishing- or more innocent- than Milos Hrma. In a world where innocent pleasures are set against a backdrop of appalling brutality, young Milos survives- albeit reluctantly- by the purity with which he lives. While his employer, Station Master Lansky, an apparently comic figure, rings the necks of his Nuremburg doves in response to German massacres of the Poles, Milos drifts through several profound rites of passage without even noticing them. This is Hrabal at his best: capturing the universal through the specific, showing the terrible with great innocence. A book that leaves you feeling you've lived a life.
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VINE VOICEon 2 July 2004
Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Observed Trains is a beautiful book whose lingering impact on the reader is greater than one would suspect from looking at its slight length. It is the story of a young man, Milos Hrma, an apprentice signalman in a Czech village railway station during WWII. The term closely "watched trains" refers to German military (soldiers, prisoners, and munitions) trains that must be watched, tracked closely to ensure a smooth passage. Failure results in close (and often deadly) scrutiny by the Gestapo. As the story it unfolds that young Milos had recently attempted suicide after his first sexual experience ends disastrously. The scars on his wrist reflect the internal scars and humiliation suffered as a result of his sexual failure. The rest of the book focuses on his desire to achieve manhood, by means of a successful sexual conquest or through some "other" means. Milos' quest is ultimately successful yet with tragic consequences. An act of simple heroism marks the story's climax. Along the way Milos has a near fatal encounter with a Gestapo officer after an incident involving a closely watched train. The understated description of this encounter is a brilliant piece of writing as the officer and Milos closely watch each other's scars before the officer decides to spare his life. The above summary does not do justice to the concise, sparse tone of Hrabal's prose that conveys great depths of meaning in the course of the story's simple narrative.
This is a beautiful story, beautifully told.
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on 16 June 2010
This book was a Round the World Book Group Selection. I didn't try to define Hrabal as being either Czech or Slovak since the book was written before they went their separate ways, and the events take place in what was then Czechoslovakia. The great unanswered question for me is "Does the narrator die on the last page or not?" This book shows the ultimate futility and waste of war in many places, of which one is in the approach of the narrator to the dying German, even though he ends up killing him. There is a comic scene with the pigeons while the stationmaster is telling the story of the stamps, and then with the countess. There is the stated, closely observed, horror of the beasts in the wagons, in comparison with the unstated horror of the forced starvation of those from whom they were stolen. This was a deliberate policy, and there was no attempt to ensure that the beasts reached slaughter in a state fit to eat. Dresden fire bombing etc. Watch the film if you get the chance.
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on 4 December 2003
I can't quite remember how this book ended up in my shopping basket, but I can recall the dismay I felt when I unpacked the flimsy volume. £5 seemed a lot to pay for 90 pages. This material view soon dissipated when I actually started to read the book. I often read books far too quickly and this can mean that I miss out words to keep the pages turning. With this book, every word is worth savouring. Not a single word is wasted. In 90-odd pages, Hrabal creates a compelling, humourous world tinged throughout with, as another reviewer said, poingnancy. Wonderful - a book to savour.
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on 30 March 2008
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
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on 11 July 2016
as charming, original and funny as the film adaption; I recommend you discover this writer
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