All Quiet on the Western Front (or ‘Nothing to report from the Western front’, the original title in German,) tells the story of the lowly foot-soldier, the man who gains the least but loses the most in any war. Paul Baumer tells us this story, a German boy fresh out of school who enlists with his entire class in the First World War and blends adolescent angst with infantryman trauma, to attack the system of setting man against man. The book describes not only the physical devastation wrought by war, but also its psychological impact – the horror of it, the coming to terms with one’s inner beast, and a profound sense of alienation.
And for a youngster, the loss of hope and the joy. In torrent after torrent of words, the author, Erich Maria Remarque, gives us the tormented views of our youthful protagonist. “We could never again, as the same beings, take part in those scenes (of our youth),” he says, “It was not any recognition of their beauty or their significance that (had) attracted us, but the communion, the feeling of comradeship with the things and events of our existence …Perhaps it is only the privilege of youth, but as yet we recognised no limits and saw nowhere an end. We had the thrill of expectation in the blood which united us with the course of our days.” He concludes that, now, they would pass those very scenes as travellers. “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial – I believe we are lost.”
The book is a quick read but not pretty, gritty scenes grappling with charged emotion on every page. Remarque, fought in the Great War and published the novel soon after, when he was twenty two, to great acclaim. He is believed to have written the book for the men who survived, who he felt were unable to communicate the extremity of their experience after their return to normalcy. Remarque, though he felt for his comrades, fitted back better in society, at least at a superficial level. He led a glamorous life consorting with actresses in the playing fields of Europe, moving to Switzerland and later to the United States when the Nazis denounced him. His books were well received with All quiet… being made into a successful movie in Hollywood. Indeed there have been successive film adaptations, with the latest one expected in 2013. Daniel Radcliffe is to star as Paul Baumer.Needless to explain, Remarque’s books were burned during the second world war. The Nazi propaganda machine also invested him with a Jewish identity, arraigned his sister, and guillotined her. ‘You will not get away like your brother’, the judge is believed to have told the doomed lady.
Shivalik felt that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was a pioneer of pacifist literature. It could very well have been, for it is only after the dawn of the twentieth century that you have had the anomaly of using as cannon fodder, educated boys who would be capable of articulating their experience. There has been a growing body of similar war literature thereafter, and a growing oeuvre of movies too. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ however, would have been the first of its kind, and in a time of imperialistic nationalism, a brave and honest book.
I felt the language of the book contains an uncertainty in the efficacy of conventional communication. Paul Baumer’s thoughts here underline this aspect: “I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try and explain that this is the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this. They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it is so too, but only with words, yes, that is it- they feel, it but always with only half of themselves.”
We wondered if something had been lost in translation. Verena disabused us of our notions; she said the book was quite the same in German too. Aparna added that it had been the same translator who had worked on ‘Embers,’ the Hungarian book we had read all those years back in Hong Kong. Embers has a rich velvety texture to it, repressed cold fury held in comfortable strong bodies, an atmosphere of disturbed luxury completely missing in the anguished and graphic ‘Nothing to report from the West.’ The differences in tone evidently attest to the translator’s talent.
So the book tends to belabour the points it makes, but as a result it is incoherently lyrical, full of palpable raw emotion. Take Baumer’s moving and poetic address to his mother, in the form of an internal monologue, achingly young in its verbosity. “Ah Mother, Mother! You still think I am a child – why can I not put my head in your lap and weep? Why have I always to be strong and self controlled? I would like to weep and be comforted, too, indeed I am little more than a child; in the wardrobe still hangs my short, boy’s trousers - it is such a little time ago, why is it over?” Some dialogue later, again: “Ah, Mother Mother! Why do I not take you in my arms and die with you? What poor wretches we are!” Some more conversation later: “Ah Mother Mother! Let us rise up and go out, back through the years, where the burden of all this misery lies on us no more, back to you and me alone Mother!” And so it goes.
While the action in ‘All quiet…’ is vivid enough and the camarederie comes through very well, emotions are often conveyed through interior monologue. The reader may find it harder to identify with the characters and be left relatively untouched. This could be a pitfall of having a first person narrative, but then again, how else to describe all that goes through the mind of a shell shocked boy-soldier. (Despite this handicap the author manages some astonishingly touching passages like when Baumer kills a French soldier at close quarters, an intimate act that terrorises him, and drives him into a delirious state. He speaks to the dead man, explaining his act, promising to write to his wife and help his family. He swears to him that he would live only for the dead man henceforth, and considers taking up printing, the dead man’s profession!)
The fact that it had been written from the German side – did that make a difference? Not at all, felt Aparna and most of us agreed. My only take was that one always looks at the ‘enemy’ as invincible (here we had some amount of self-clarification from all sides, and we could not help reflecting on how our views were often derived from the literature we had been exposed to). The book affords a sneak peek into the ‘other’ side bringing us closer to the realisation that people are people everywhere, not only bitter and disillusioned during hard times but also helpless and scared.
Leena could not help connecting with how food becomes paramount in times of crises and was reminded of an anecdote from her grandfather’s life in the army. His unit had evacuated a village, in the ’65 Indo-Pak war, and while making his inspection round, he discovered hens hiding in the roof of the house. What a wonderful find! That was the highlight of the day – that and the chicken curry. I had to jump in with my own story of my father combing through sugarcane fields for paratroopers while fifty scared villagers followed his every move – a technical officer in a missile squadron had no business attempting personal valour, but what do you do when public opinion lifts you and carries you through your actions. Orwell’s 'Shooting an Elephant' comes to mind.
Verena discovered the author only recently when she picked up his ‘Arc de Triomphe’, which she really liked. She wanted to read his most famous work, and so came up with her book recommendation. Her own grandfathers had been in the Second World war, one of whom never spoke of it. But even the anecdotes that were shared, Verena said, were the lighter versions, the happy-ending stories that kept the hard truth hidden. This book was an important one in that it gave us a glimpse of the unvarnished truth.
For that, we were all glad we had read the book.