Closely Watched Trains– Bohumil Hrabal



Closely Watched Trains was my first introduction to this amazing Czech writer who was as at home in his favorite pub, as he was quoting Emanual Kant at the soccer matches…

In keeping with a semi-confessional nature here at Traces, I have to admit to having a copy of this and his Too Loud A Solitude sitting unread on my bookshelves for over three decades. After reading them, I have decided only at the last minute to stay my execution…

I started with this one on the advice that it may be his most conventional work, and maybe his most famous (it was made into an Academy Award Winning movie in 1966). On one level it is a pretty straight forward story with a flashback or two, of the timid, bumbling young railroad dispatcher apprentice Milos Hrma. The depot is a microcosm of Czech life in the madness that is the Nazi occupation of 1946. Hrma to me is not as ‘simple’ as he seems. I would say he’s been emotionally flayed and significantly tries to become a ‘man’ in the world. His impotency is figurative as well as real. Hrma’s as the narrator is the emotionally detached lens panning the scenes with little coloration, but given his distraction he renders it in the fashion of a daydream. Hrabal has simplified Hrma’s emotional constructs as Hrma’s lens plays on the cruel absurdities of life in his Nazi occupied country.

The novel is colonized in the story level by characters that are typecast: a clown, a Casanova, a slut, and the fumbling , naive young hero, but they are also more than caricatures by a wide margin, we are allowed to glimpse their fragile attempts to escape the imposed unreality, to at least visualize a semblance of a future, such as seen by Hublika’s “cloud writing”, projections of his fantasy reality as we gaze along with him at his created sky.  The bounds of what is ‘normal’ or real are constantly stretched,  as in the pigeon-encrusted station master who constantly tries to retain his sanity after conflicts with his staff by stomping upstairs in the depot and shouting tirades down the air vent shaft, as if he’s God shouting down from the heavens. Besides the ‘Polish’ Pigeons, which are pretty much the only form of life not subject to human atrocity, the domestic animals are abused, maimed and mistreated through out. All humanity is reduced to the level of fauna, at one point, the SS call the Czechs ‘bestial’ and later the Nazis are referred to by the station master as ‘beasts’..

The Pargeter translated prose borders on the poetic. Sadness and humor in almost every sentence. Do not be deceived by its length… there is a palpable density to it, and a powerful ending that will be moving for some, or possibly a bit over-reaching for others.


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