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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful book, August 30, 2007
By 
Leonard Fleisig "Len" (Virginia Beach, Virginia) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books) (Paperback)
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 length - 96 pages. 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 (soliers, 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 succesful sexual conquest or through some "other" means. Milos' quest is ultimately succesful 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 train requiring extra scrutiny. 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. I also recommend the movie Closely Watched Trains(even though I could only find it on VHS) after reading the book. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1966.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars leaves you desperate to see the film and read more of his books., March 30, 2008
This review is from: Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books) (Paperback)
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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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, worthwhile read; but see if you can't find another edition (other than the Abacus 2013 reprint), June 18, 2014
This review is from: Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books) (Paperback)
An excellent novella. Funny, thoughtful and surprising. Just be aware the 2013 Abacus paperback reprint is poor quality paper (yellowish vs. crisp & white). This short book deserves better!
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4.0 out of 5 stars The small things of life, September 6, 2012
By 
keetmom (South Africa) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books) (Paperback)
It is easy to miss the signifance of this little book. It is a quick read and it is only right towards the end that the reader discovers the significance of the "closely observed trains" and who is observing them, with what consequences. Up until then it is a rather curious tale of a young man's coming of age struggle in war torn Czechoslovakia. But that is the whole point - the contrast between the ordinariness of his dilemmas of how he becomes a man and the far from ordinary times in which he lives. Bohumil Hrabal gives us an all too brief a glimpse of small town life in occupied Europe towards the end of WWII. He produces a unique and compelling mix of the bland, the surreal and the dramatic that occupy a young man's thoughts as he goes about his business as a junior railway official employed at an isolated, but important junction near the Russian front. The small things of life do matter and Hrabal has produced a brief, bittersweet way to remind us why.

PS I am never sure what drives the title changes between the UK and US versions of some books. In this case Closely Observed Trains (also the title of the Czechoslovak movie) has become Closely Watched Trains. I prefer the former.
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Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books)
Closely Observed Trains (Abacus Books) by Bohumil Hrabal (Paperback - April 5, 1990)
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