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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heroism of common people
This is a tale about heroism of ordinary people, not about epic feats. You won't find here but common people, and that's what makes the tale so touching and realistic. The book is beautiful and is beautifully written, with a sober yet elegant and poetic style. The trains are an essential part of all the characters'lives in their jobs and their personal memories, and are...
Published on May 8, 2001 by IVAN JIMENEZ CORREAL

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2 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars TODAY HE IS A MAN
SPOILER ALERT:

Milos Hrama is a 22 year old Czech railroad apprentice in the closing days of WWII. His country is still occupied and Nazi trains continue to roll through the station, but he and his countrymen have more or less accommodated themselves to the situation. Sure, his Grandfather did try facing down the tanks when they first invaded, attempting to...
Published on October 3, 2009 by Orrin C. Judd


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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heroism of common people, May 8, 2001
This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
This is a tale about heroism of ordinary people, not about epic feats. You won't find here but common people, and that's what makes the tale so touching and realistic. The book is beautiful and is beautifully written, with a sober yet elegant and poetic style. The trains are an essential part of all the characters'lives in their jobs and their personal memories, and are related to the fight of Czechs partisans at the end of the II World War, which is the time the novel is placed. The novel is both dramatic and comic, and Hrabal's sense of humour is one of his most remarkable features, following the best tradition of Czech's Literature, particularly Jaroslav Hasek. The mixture of drama and comedy, as well as the human touch and tenderness which envelops the characters makes this novel very moving to every reader. This work is a little and brilliant jewel, definitely worth the trouble reading.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Story Beautifully Told, May 24, 2004
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This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Watched Train is a beautiful book whose lingering impact on the reader is greater than one would suspect from looking at its length - 85 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 closely watched train. 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 (available on Amazon)after reading the book. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1966. The screenplay was written by Hrabal and altough not totally faithful to the book's narrative it is well acted and serves as a nice complement to the book.
I strongly recommend this book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bittersweet picture of losing innocence, June 20, 1998
This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
A basis for a 1967 Oscar winning movie (dir. jiri Menzel) Hrabal's book is drawing a parallel between the loss of innocence of a youth Milos Hrma, and the Czech people during WW II. The experiences of Milos, an apprentice with a small railway station in the middle of Bohemia, tells you more about the role of Czech people, collaborateurs, middlemen, resistors, under the German occupation than an Encyclopedia. Beautifully written, in the best Central European tradition of irony and self-deprecation.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Human Tragi-Comedy, September 8, 2004
By 
J C E Hitchcock (Tunbridge Wells, Kent, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
Hrabal's short novella "Closely Observed Trains" (the title under which it is published in Britain)is set in a railway station in a small town in Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1945. Although the war is coming to an end, the country is still under German occupation, and the book's title refers to the special military trains which need to be kept under close guard as they travel to the front.

The central character, Milos Hrma, is a young apprentice traffic controller, and the opening scenes of the book tend towards the comic, as Milos describes the attempts of his colleagues to get on with their everyday lives, seemingly oblivious to the historic events taking place around them. Milos's boss, Station-Master Lansky, is a ridiculous figure, obsessed with promoting himself both in the social hierarchy (he lays claim to aristocratic lineage) and in the hierarchy of the Czech railway system. Despite his eagerness for promotion, however, he pays more attention to his hobby of pigeon breeding than he does to the requirements of his job. Lansky's subordinate, Dispatcher Hubicka, is equally neglectful of his duties, although his main obsession is pursuing women; he is facing disciplinary proceedings for the offence of misusing Government property by using the station's official stamps to decorate the backside of an attractive young female telegraphist.

As the story progresses, it takes on a darker tone. We learn that Milos has recently returned to work after three months in hospital following an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. The cause of this attempt was depression brought on by impotence and his inability to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend. The latter part of the book has two themes- his continuing obsession with losing his virginity and the plot he forms with Hubicka to help the Czech Resistance by destroying one of the Germans' special trains.

The expression "tragi-comedy" is perhaps over-used in literary criticism, being all too often a category to enable the lazy critic to pigeonhole works that resist neat pigeonholing- certain of Shakespeare's plays, for example. It seems to me, however, that the adjective "tragi-comic" is indeed an appropriate one to use about "Closely Observed Trains" because of the contrast between the tragic situation of the Czech people under the German occupation and the many comic incidents that take place, such as Hubicka's adventures with the telegraphist, or Lansky's habit of shouting his criticism of the morals of society down the ventilation shaft in the station kitchen. The same incident, indeed, may have both comic and serious overtones, as when Lansky, in protest against the German invasion of Poland, kills his German pigeons and replaces them with Polish ones- an act both cruel and ridiculous. The book is full of gruesome but absurd details, such as the three dead horses thrown from a train and left by the railway lines. This is a book of less than a hundred pages, but Hrabal is able to fill that space with a fantastic amount of detail, both trivial and serious.

The central theme of the book is the various strategies people use to survive in the tragic circumstances of war and occupation- courageous acts of resistance, petty acts of defiance (such as using the metal from a downed German plane to roof rabbit-hutches and chicken-coops) and continuing to pursue the trivia of existence. Sometimes they use a mixture of all three. One can easily see why the Communist authorities disliked Hrabal's work; they had no objection to tales of heroic deeds in the fight against fascism, but these had to be viewed through the simplistic ideology of Marxism-Leninsm and placed in the context of the class struggle. Hrabal's world was more complex and less ideological. There is a place for courage in that world, but also a place for compromise and for the apolitical details of everyday life. Seen in this context, Milos's bravery seems both more impressive and the book's ending more poignant. This is a fine piece of writing and, given that it was written under Communist rule, a brave one.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hrabal's timeless masterpiece, October 4, 2006
This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
Hrabal's short novella "Closely watched trains" is a delight. In English translation it has just about 90 pages, yet in these 90 pages a story is told, which could be extended to an Oscar-winning movie and is an absolute masterpiece.

Milos Hrma, the main protagonist and narrator, is a railway apprentice during World War II in the German-occupied Czechoslovakia. He is in love with Masha, the ticket controller and his whole life is centered at the provincial railway station with the supervisor Lansky, whose passion are pigeons and ambition - to became accepted into aristocracy, and the promiscuous dispatcher Hubicka, Milos' teacher and role model.
The book starts with some family history and moves back and forth in time, as Milos recalls the events that led to his suicide attempt (from which he just recovered). As the story develops, we get to know the solution to his problem. We get from the light to the serious matters and back in the matter of a few pages. The prose is condensed and rich, evoking powerful imagery with few words.

The character of Milos is as complicated and full of contrasts as only the youth can be - he is innocent, insecure, romantic, silly, but incredibly brave at the same time.

The bittersweet Czech humor is here at its greatest, as well as the typical melancholy, which together with Hrabal's mastery of the language and his great observations and criticism of the national character, war circumstances from the perspective of the remote town, and the emotional turmoil of the protagonist, give the amazing mix, which will never get outdated and always be a pleasure to read - in other words, a perennial classic.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eros and Thanatos: an optimistic tragedy, July 22, 2009
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This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
Hrabal needed to show optimism. He published this book in the heyday of socialist realism. It is actually a sanitized version of a much wilder story, which was unpublishable.
The avant-garde has a tendency to be unfair to those who are tolerated by oppressors. Hrabal barely made it to the printing press, but he got vilified by his friends. Would you believe it, this outrageous piece of brilliant short fiction was attacked because the government allowed it to be printed. It was considered `prettified'.
This shows how twisted our minds get under stress.

The story is set in early 45, the Germans are losing the war, the Czech village, where the narrator works with the railways, is watching events closely. The story is filled with Hrabal's usual eccentrics. The great grandfather who got his invalidity pension from the K&K army at age 18 during the 1848 revolution and then lived to get beaten up regularly by the envious neighborhood until he died from a beating at 105. The grandfather who tried to stop the German invasion by hypnosis (and in the process caused a situation similar to the famous Tiananmen photo of one man standing in front of a tank; success did not come in either case), and was at least the only one who even tried to stop the tanks. The father who collects old metal scraps for who knows what purpose, a retiree from being a locomotive driver.

But I don't want to tell the story, Hrabal does it well already, and it is not long.
Of course this is a war story, and it is funny and gory and heroic with tongue in cheek. And don't forget, with these Czechs and specially with Hrabal, there is no life without sex, and not much death either. It is absolutely brilliant and among the best of its class, right up there with Conrad or Crane (didn't I just review something about cranes? Odd).
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Closely Watched Trains is a recommended Hrabal work., April 25, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
Bohumil Hrabal's novel (or novella, more precisely) Closely Watched Trains first hit the scene in 1965. It is the story of the curiously naive railwayman/kid Milos Hrma who overcomes his sexual impotence by succesfully consummating intercourse with an older woman. This intimate and seminal life event of Milos is beatifully and sensitively detailed amid occasional description of WWII, an event that was looming over Milos and his surroundings. This novella is a joy to read.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Heroism in a Tragicomic Key, June 1, 2007
By 
Robert T. OKEEFFE (Orangeburg, Rockland County, New York) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
American and English readers will, if they are of a certain age, remember the film adaptation of this novella in the mid-1960's. Perhaps they saw it at a student film festival or in a local "art-house" which specialized in showing foreign films (and it was a great era for films from France, Sweden, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland - I apologize if I have slighted the cinematic prominence of other nations in that heady time.) Hrabal wrote the screenplay for the film as well. This took place during the several years of liberalizing ferment within Czechoslovakia that culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968, a burst of optimism that was to be quickly squashed like an unwelcome insect.

So the novella is known through both its film version and several English-language editions which have been published intermittently during the past forty years. The story is one of youthful heroism blossoming in the local context of everyday activities, but also in the increasingly desperate overall political and military context of the last months of World War II, when it seemed that the Protectorate might be used by the Germans to throw up a suicidal, last-ditch defense against its converging enemies. With the exception of the narrator's recollection of meaningful events in his young life, the entire story takes place within the confines of a railway station where its major characters are employees of the state's railway service. (The station and its employees are a fictional re-creation of the train station at Kostomlaty - a small town near Nymburk, Hrabal's hometown -- where the author worked during the war. He reveals this and the genesis of two of the book's major scenes in "November Hurricane", one of nine autobiographical essays in the collection "Total Fears. Letters to Dubenka", published posthumously in an English translation in 1998.)

As well as a hero's tale the story is also a sexual comedy, with its farcical central episode of Dispatcher Hubicka's imprinting official railroad stamps on the charming buttocks of telegraphist Virginia Svata. This deed has hilarious implications and results - photographs of Virginia's decorated buttocks are circulating, and based on these there is a promise of a film career for the young woman. A ridiculous railroad administrative inquisition takes place in order to establish the legality of such an act. At the same time Stationmaster Lansky, who heartily disapproves of the behavior of his underlings, is being petitioned by the local aristocracy to introduce Hubicka to them socially - he is a man after their own hearts. (A minor point: While her last name is "Saint", J. Skvorecky points out in his Introduction that Virginia is not an apt translation of her first name, Zdenicka. He may have missed a tricky bilingual etymological boat here, since the prototype of Zdenicka is probably Saint Denise, celebrated for the staunch defense of her own virginity; so the translator caught this irony with the suggestive English "Virginia". On the other hand I may be deluding myself on this point, but Skvorecky does mention the symbolic nature of several characters' Czech names - none of which, by the way, come across in any English translation!)

It's just the kind of bold and whimsical act that makes the narrator and hero-to-be, Assistant Dispatcher Milos Hrma, admire Hubicka all the more (and, by comparison, lose confidence in himself, for Milos has had a little problem with premature ejaculation, preventing the fulfillment of his love for fellow employee Masha; it's made him uncomfortable with himself to the point of attempting suicide). Events conspire to lead Milos into his heroic act (blowing up a German munitions train headed to the eastern front). His participation in this exploit comes almost as an afterthought to his successful sexual escapade with an older woman who arrives at the station on a Resistance mission, delivering the bomb to be used to Hubicka. In fact, Milos' tryst with Victoria Freie gives him the confidence to imagine that he can undertake great things. He does and, as a consequence, he dies.

Some readers will probably react to the book's ending with reserve or skepticism, finding it too heroic in the sentimental mold - as the fire-bombed Dresden boils up into the western night sky and the munitions train explodes a few miles to the east Milos lies dying in the snow, fatally wounded by a German train guard whom he has shot (and Milos finds a common bond of humanity with his victim even as he "mercy-kills" him). In spite of this rather cinematic ending, Hrabal closes the book with one of his typical coarse, comical observations that is very deflating: "Sie sollen am Arsche zu Hause setzen.", quoting the train engineer who has just dropped off a bedraggled collection of Dresden residents who escaped incineration.

If you are such a skeptical reader made unhappy by the book's ending, you can reappraise its effect by now going back and reading the Introduction written by Hrabal's fellow Czech novelist, Josef Skvorecky (don't read the Introduction first). He not only discusses the uneasiness of readers over the book's finale, he explains just how it came about as a somewhat forced rewriting - forced by the political circumstances of the time -- of an earlier version of the story, a much grimmer and more brutal version known as "The Legend of Cain", written in the late 1940's and never published. That story not only tweaked the "hero-requirements" of the Communist bureaucracy's conventions of "socialist realism" in fiction, it also assailed some of the pieties of Czech nationalism. In other words it was a double-barreled shot bound to backfire on Hrabal. Reading this Introduction is indispensable to a fuller understanding of "Closely Watched Trains", and it explains the particularities of the practice of "cultural politics" and literary criticism within an aspiring totalitarian state (in the interest of fairness to what he feels is a work whose literary merits are undervalued, Skvorecky is just as hard on some of the dissidents who dismissed this novel as he is on the government which allowed it to be published then banned it).

The language is typically Hrabalian, i.e., fluent, colloquial, floating high ideals on low imagery, and inclined on occasion toward the rhapsodic (the rhapsody of the adolescent self discovering itself in a difficult situation). The translation by Edith Pargeter captures these qualities. The Northwestern University Press editions that started in the 1980s have the Skvorecky Introduction, as does an earlier publication of the novella by the Viking Penguin Press.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why don't more Americans read Hrabal?, October 24, 1999
This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
A classic work, true to Hrabal's technique of penetrating deep into the psyche of a "little person," who is seemingly unimportant, but reflects a whole society. The ending of the book is different than the movie, with an amazing, and complex moment of acceptance and accusation both, as Czech and German lay dying together. Hrabal's symbolism compresses surreal poetry and social codes together, and like "Too Loud a Solitude" this slender book can say a lot more than many bigger ones.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a subtle portrait of youth diminishing, September 3, 2000
By 
Scott Lefaive (Charlotte, North Carolina USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) (Paperback)
do you remember, as a child, watching trains pass by? i'm guessing that you counted every car, reading the words on some; looking in the windows of others. this, to me, could stand as the definition for innocence and it feels as if the adult counter part of this process lies somewhere inside milos hrma, the narrator of hrabal's novella. milos is a young railroad apprentice who insulates himself against the reality of world war ii. he cowers when faced with authority and he fears that he is impotent. those fears are eventually silenced as he confronts a trainload of nazis and realizes the consequences of war. he lays bleeding and gripping the hand of a dead german soldier, who is both his victim and his murderer. hrabal has written an understated and poetic tale of german-occupied czechoslovakia that lives in your mind long after the eighty-five pages are read.
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Closely Watched Trains (European Classics)
Closely Watched Trains (European Classics) by Bohumil Hrabal (Paperback - March 9, 1995)
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