Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak (1965) Literature and War Readalong March 2017

Published in 1965, Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky, was one of the author’s greatest successes and has even been made into a movie. Hrabal wrote a first version of this book, which was more radical but had no chance of getting published. While this second version still contains a lot of what was unacceptable in Czechoslovakia at the time – the depiction of unheroic death and sex – by the time it was published, the public was ready and embraced Hrabal’s irreverent tale, in which sex ultimately leads to a young man’s demise.

Closely Observed Trains tells the story of a young man, Milos Hrama, who is an apprentice at a train station. Milos is back at work after three months of sick leave. He tried to kill himself after failing in bed with his girlfriend. He’s still a virgin and afraid that if he has a second chance with his girlfriend, the result will be the same.

It’s the end of the war and the Germans are slowly being defeated. But still trains from and to the Eastern front arrive at the small but strategically important station. Trains that transport wounded soldiers, maimed cattle, animals on their way to the slaughterhouse. Some of this is described quite graphically. I even had to put dow the book a few times.

The little station has been the scene of a scandal. One of the employees, dispatcher Hubicka, used the official stamps and applied them to the naked bottom of a beautiful telegraphist. The story has made the rounds and people come to have a look at the audacious Hubicka. Many are scandalised, but many more admire him for his gutsy behaviour. The station master pretends he’s shocked, but he’s too involved with his own life to really care. He’s busy climbing the social ladder, licking asses, caring for his beloved pigeons, and shouting at people.

All this fascinates Milos whose over sexed imagination is combined with the fear of failing again in the future. In many comic scenes he tries to talk about his fears to different people.

The sexual aspects of the novel are in many instances hilarious, but the book is still very serious. Some of the humour is used to ridicule collaborators and the Germans themselves aren’t spared. There’s no empathy for the enemy. Towards the end, when Dresden is bombed, one of the character’s laconic comment to a wounded German soldier, “You should have stayed home, shouldn’t you?”, is quoted again.

The most striking aspect of the book is that it combines scenes of horror and humour and in doing so achieves a distortion that gives the story an absurd feel. It’s as if the war wasn’t taken seriously, not because the people don’t get how serious it is but as an act of defiance. It’s as if the characters were saying to the Germans—you may think you defeated us – think again – you failed because we refuse to take you and your war seriously.

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal. It reminded me of some Czech movies I’ve seen during a Czech movie festival. Many of them used the same type of humour. It’s a mix of the absurd and the burlesque. Exaggerations, tall tales. At times this humour is close to slapstick but always stops right before turning into this cruder humour. It’s the behaviour, the attitude of the people that’s funny. They aren’t goofs, they are eccentrics.

I expected a lot from this slim novel and am happy to say – I wasn’t disappointed.


Other Reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Marina Sofia (findingtimetowrite)


Closely Observed Trains is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII memoir La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras. Discussion starts on Friday 28 April, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

33 thoughts on “Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak (1965) Literature and War Readalong March 2017

  1. I was going to ask you if you’d watched the film but you already mentioned that. I own the book and the film but have yet to get to them. I didn’t expect the humour.

    • A very interesting kind of humour. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but it made me smile. I’ll watch soon and hope to review the film as well then.
      I’m sure you’ll like it.

  2. Pingback: Literature and War: Closely Observed Trains – My Book Strings

  3. What a great pick, Caroline! I really “enjoyed” reading it!! I’m glad that you mentioned the Czech movie festival. While I was reading, I was reminded of some of the black-and-white movies I watched during my college years in the little independent “artsy” movie theaters in Berlin. I’d be interested to hear how you like the film of this book.

    • I’m glad you liked it too. It’s terrific, isn’t it?
      I saw a few of those black and white movies and the humor was so different. A lot like in thus book. I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

  4. I saw and liked the film years ago when they had a Czech New wave season – yes, they used to have things like that on TV – but I haven’t read the book. I keep meaning to but then I have a couple of other books by Hrabal sitting here patiently to be read.

    • I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the film. It’s apparently more chronological than the book.
      I think this is said to be one of his most accessible books, but hey others should be well worth reading too. It’s d be interested to hear what you think of him.

  5. A reading friend is a big fan of this author’s work, especially ‘I Served the King of England’ and ‘Mr Kafka’. ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’ also came to mind as I was reading your review – not a book I’ve read, but I wonder if it might share some common ground with the Hrabal.

  6. I remembered the film from long ago,so was pleased to see you recommend the book.Got hold of a copy of the book and just finished it in one sitting;a wonderful read.Am now searching for my dvd of the film,which was a freebie with The Independent newspaper some years ago.

  7. Great review Caroline.

    I have not read this nor have I seen the film.

    Your comment about perts of the book being funny within a very serious book is interesting. I think that this can be accomplished by skilled writers.I have been reading a lot of Anthony Trollope lately and this is characteristic of many of his books.

    • Thanks, Brian. This is a book you would like. Its humor has been compared to the movie Catch 22. I suppose you’ve seen that. Trollope is great at combining the serious with funny elements.

  8. When I started reading this review I wasn’t expecting to hear about so much humour and scandal – I thought it was going to be pretty serious and depressing. I think I’ll be adding this to my list. Thanks!

  9. I read this book on the 31st of March, but have been away from my computer and unable to post a review, so I will do one later this week. I really enjoyed it, greatly admired the writer’s skill at conveying all at once humour and darkness and a sort of despair in so few words.

    • Thanks, Laila. I haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five yet but I read about it and I was actually wondering if they had anything in common. I’ll have to read it finally and f d out.

  10. Pingback: #EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains – findingtimetowrite

  11. Tremendous isn’t it? I reviewed this at mine. I think that sense of absurdity somehow makes it all the more credible, and ultimately sadder. It’s also though as you say – the humour is a form of defiance.

    I should read more Hrabal, but I haven’t yet. Do you think you shall?

    Slaughterhouse Five is much blacker in its humour. It’s worth reading but tonally fairly different as I recall.

    • Absolutely tremendous. I think I’ll read more of him. Although I’m a bit worried as some of his other titles seem not as accessible. More experimental and I’m not into that.
      I’m glad about your coment on Slaughterhouse Five. It’s always good to know what to expect.
      I’ll hop over to yours when I get a chance.

  12. Pingback: Book Review – Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal | Vishy's Blog

  13. Loved your review, Caroline. I liked what you said about the humour depicted in the book. I found that humour very fascinating. I was hoping that the story would have a happy ending, because of all the humour in it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

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