Saturday, 18 September 2010

Nothing New on the Western Front

I've finally got around to reading Erich Maria Remarque's classic novel of World War 1, All Quiet on the Western Front.  Among other things, I learnt that its German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, properly translates as "Nothing New on the Western Front".  A piece of irony completely in tune with the book itself, and a direct quote from the final page of the book:

...a day so still and quiet along the entire front line that the army dispatches restricted themselves to the single sentence: that there was nothing new to report on the western front.

The English title, so thoroughly embedded in our vernacular that it would be impossible for any publisher to change, carries a different kind of irony.  The novel reverberates with the sound of artillery and gunfire. 

It has one of the best openings of any book I've read: a scene of satiety, the company recently relieved from the front line, their bellies full after a huge feast. 

And on top of it all we're not really entitled to this lot....We've only got it because of a mistake.  Fourteen days ago we were sent up the line as relief troops.  It was pretty quiet in our sector, and because of that the quartermaster drew the normal quantity of food for the day we were due back, and he catered for the full company of a hundred and fifty men.  But then, on the very last day, we were taken by surprise by long-range shelling from heavy artillery.  The English guns kept on pounding our position, so we lost a lot of men, and only eighty of us came back.

This "mistake" sets the tone for the jarring mix of carnage and humour that follows.  What's most impressive is what's not there.  There's no heroism, no grand ideals, no sense of strategy and purpose, no good guys or bad guys.  There's only a group of soldiers - some young boys just out of school, some older men, farmers signed up for the pay - who have no loyalty except to their mates and think no further than surviving another day.  There are moments of black comedy behind the lines when, to the distant boom of artillery, the soldiers live entirely for the moment, scrounging food where they can and stuffing themselves like there's no tomorrow.  Then there are moments on the line when you see why there may be no tomorrow as they kill or are killed with brutal impersonality.

The Nazis burnt copies of this book saying it betrayed the frontline soldiers but it doesn't do that.  They are brave, resourceful and they care for one another.  The people it betrays are the leaders and generals on both sides who signed up for the war, sending young men to their deaths without rhyme or reason.  In the process, so much of their humanity is stripped away.

We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful - we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.

Against this backdrop the characters, even the narrator, are not strong.  They are cardboard cutouts, archetypal soldiers going through their grim manouvres, without hopes or dreams, hanging on to life with stubborn despair.  Only the indefatigable Katczinsky stands out and this is mainly for his comic effect, his ability to find food anywhere, to make the best of the meagre life on offer.  The rest serve merely as cannon fodder.  It's just as well you don't get to like them too much because you know it can only end one way.

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