Bohumil Hrabal: Ostře sledované vlaky (A Close Watch on the Trains; Closely Watched Trains; Closely Observed Trains)
[Note, just to confuse matters, the film was called Closely Observed Trains and, more recently, English-language versions of this novel have adopted this title.]
This book was only able to be published in Czechoslovakia in 1964, during the period of the thaw and, like the better-known film, was banned soon after the Russian invasion in 1968. As this film mildly mocks both the Germans in the war and the fact that the Czechs, at least those in this book, don’t seem to actually live in the real world (but then who does?), it does not seem entirely clear why the Czech communist authorities were so opposed to it. But they were.
The story is set in a railway station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia towards the end of World War II. The hero is Miloš Hrma, a trainee dispatcher in the railway station and a young man, who like his colleagues, often drifts into fantasy. He is in love with Masha, a train guard, and she is in love with him. However, when it came time for him to prove himself to her, he, in his own words wilted like a lily. He was so traumatized by this that he attempted suicide but was rescued before he died. This incident, and others, are treated by Hrabal both with their tragic dimension but also as comedic events. Indeed, this mixture of tragedy and comedy is a standard Eastern European literary device and Hrabal employs it to the full. Once recovered, Miloš returns to work but is still worried by his potential performance. He asks the station-master’s wife for assistance and while she is not unwilling, she points out that she has reached menopause and can offer little except to check out that everything feels in order, which she does and it is. It is only with the arrival of a woman partisan, carrying a charge to be used to blow up the closely watched train of the title, that Miloš is able to get a proper lesson.
Besides Miloš and the station-master’s wife, there are two other main characters in the station. The station-master himself, Mr. Lánský, is obsessed with his pigeons, to the total neglect of the operation of the station. He is mildly ambitious and even has the uniform for the rank above him all ready and waiting for when he receives his hoped-for promotion, though this is thwarted when the chief inspector arrives at an inopportune moment. The dispatcher Mr. Hubička, is obsessed with sex and is currently under investigation for an incident involving Virginia, the telegraphist. The two were on duty alone one night and played a sexual game, which ended with Hubička applying the various official stamps to Virginia’s naked bottom. Unfortunately, her mother saw and reported it and, during the book, an investigation of Hubička takes place. However, as Miloš points out, all the men would have loved to do the same thing, only they did not have the guts.
All this takes place against the background of the war. We see trains wrecked by partisans, animals allowed to starve in trains and the results of the bombing of Dresden. Though Miloš is held at gunpoint by the SS, the war generally seems remote till Viktoria Freie arrives. After giving Miloš his sex lesson, she leaves a charge and it is Hubička’s task to use it but he is afraid and it is Miloš who reveals himself to be a man. Though the book does have a serious ending (though Hrabal cannot resist one last witticism), it is essentially a witty story in the sense that man’s foibles and man’s tragedy are treated light-heartedly and it is this that gives the book its charm.
First published by Ceskoslovenský spisovatel in 1964
First published in English by Jonathan Cape in 1968 as A Close Watch on the Trains and by Grove Press as Closely Watched Trains
Translated by Edith Pargeter