The Train Was on Time

The latest in Penguin’s wonderful European Writers series feature perhaps the most famous neglected writer yet, Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll. While Boll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum has remained stubbornly in print, most of his other work has not. The Train Was on Time is Boll’s first novel, originally published in 1949, and here in a translation by Leila Vennewitz from 1970 with a new introduction by Anna Funder, author of Stasiland.

The novel has a simple but powerful premise: a young German soldier, Andreas, sets off in a train to the Eastern front believing that he will die. “I don’t want to die,” he shouts to his friend as the train pulls out of the station:

“I don’t want to die, but the terrible thing is that I’m going to die…soon!”

This belief becomes engrained – “the word soon entered him like a bullet” – and he can think of little else. Initially the fear is a vague one:

“This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty.”

It is perhaps for this reason that, as his journey progresses, he becomes steadily convinced he knows the time and place of his death:

“Soon was no longer quite so blurred, he had already groped his way up to this Soon, circled it and sniffed it, and already he knew that he was going to die during the night of Saturday to Sunday between Lvov and Cernauti…in Galicia.”

The train journey, therefore, becomes a journey towards death, “every turn of the wheels tears off a piece of my life”:

“My life is now nothing but a specific number of miles, a section of railway line.”

The intensity with which Boll explores this conviction is gripping, but the novel is much more than one man’s journey: not only does Boll reveal Andreas’ experience of war, distilled to one particular moment, but he does the same for his other characters, Andreas’ companions in the railway carriage, an unshaven soldier (later Willi when he has shaved) and a blonde soldier. Among Andreas’ few positive memories are that of a woman he saw in France:

“For a tenth of a second our eyes held each other’s, maybe even less than a tenth of a second, and I can’t forget her eyes. For three and a half years I’ve had to think about them and haven’t been able to forget them.”

His sight of the woman is cut short when an aircraft crashes nearby, and when he returns to find her he cannot even discover who she was: “maybe it was a whore,” a man tells him, or “a madwoman from the asylum.” This sentimentality is entirely in keeping with Andreas’ youth and emphasises his innocence. Willi has had a more positive experience of war having made some money selling cars made from the salvageable parts of bombed army vehicles, but he, too, assumes he will die, deciding to spend all the money he has save to pay off the loan on his house:

“The mortgage, the whole Lvov mortgage is ours!”

The blonde soldier confides in Andreas his own terrible war story during six weeks in an isolated gun emplacement:

“The sergeant major was like an animal… so he seduced us, what else is there to say? We were all like that…except one. He refused. He was an old fellow, married with a family…”

The soldier who refuses is shot by the sergeant major and the blonde soldier conspires in the cover-up, telling Andreas, “After that I never enjoyed anything again, and I never will.” Andreas believes their fatalism unites them:

“Willi also knows he is going to die, and the blond fellow is ready to die too, their lives are over.”

In this way the novel does not simply exemplify the horror of war through Andreas’ experience, but also through the trauma of “the blond fellow” and Willi’s cheerful pessimism. Finally, when the three soldiers visit a brothel, we also see the effects on the civilian population in the shape of Olina, a Polish woman of Andreas’ age who was once a pianist. She reveals to Andreas that she (and, she says, all of Poland) works for the Polish resistance, but has her own epiphany in the hours she spends with him:

“And when I saw you standing over there by the window… it came to me for the first time that we also only murder the innocent.”

Despite its brevity, The Train Was on Time provides a detailed picture of war, as Boll selects his subjects like a skilled documentarian, noticing what others would prefer not to see. Its focus on a deeply felt central character and its relentless countdown lend it an emotional power like a pounding engine which advances from page to page towards the inevitable final scene.

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12 Responses to “The Train Was on Time”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Oh, I really want to read this! These Penguin editions are so beautifully produced and hard to resist. I’ve yet to read anything by Boll, but hopefully this will prove to be a suitable introduction. Is it fairly representative of his style, do you think?

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    It sounds almost thriller-like, only he is pursued by such an overwhelming prediction of his own demise. Amazing that the author imbues the text with that sense of pursuit.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I think I have a ragged old Penguin version of this, but I’m certainly coveting this pretty new one. I need to read more Boll…

  4. BookerTalk Says:

    Why does he feel so strongly at the beginning that he will die?

    • 1streading Says:

      An excellent question but one that’s never entirely answered. His initial feeling is just that he will die soon, perhaps not unusual in wartime. My sense was that he tries to put a time and place on this as a way of controlling his fear.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That really does sound excellent. Have you read Ismail Kadare’s Broken April by any chance? Very different, but also deals with the perception of inescapable death on a predictable timeline (there codified rules for revenge amongst rural Albanians).

    Penguin are really doing themselves proud with this series aren’t they?

    • 1streading Says:

      I have read Broken April and the way in which time is running out is certainly common to both. I love this series from Penguin and only wish it was monthly!

  6. Books of the Year 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] appeal as a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Set only a few years later, Heinrich Boll’s The Train Was on Time (translated by Leila Vennewitz) is another masterly novella, where the atmosphere of impending […]

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