I have spent much of my life, from around ten or eleven years old, looking for the answer, for something that would provide relief and allow me to, not exactly reconcile myself with The Fear, but at least be able to cope with those times when it sits on my chest and holds me down and pummels me in the face. Which is most days really. For years my relationship with The Fear – which for other people may mean a number of things but which for me is a fear of dying – has involved extreme panic attacks. During these attacks, which I would describe as being motivated by The Genuine Belief That One Day I Will Definitely Die, I will howl inhumanly, and tear at my hair, literally grab great chunks of hair and pull at them like an overzealous, inexperienced fisherman yanks at his rod when he sees his float disappear under the surface of the pond’s water. And I will scream, actually scream into the palms of my hands, and writhe and kick and squirm. When The Fear really takes hold, when I truly believed that at some point I am going to cease to exist – because it is a different thing to say it or know it than it is to truly believe it – it is like my head, my body, my Self, is going to suffer a kind of irrevocable breakdown, a Twin Towers-like collapse, and the writhing, the screaming, the kicking, etc is a sort of existential battle for survival, is my Self trading blows with The Fear. If anyone was ever to see me in this state, which they wouldn’t of course because The Fear is a canny bastard who will only ever step to a guy when he is at his most alone and vulnerable, they’d think, understandably, that I was possessed.
All of which should go some way to explaining why Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time, which is, on the most basic level, the story of a young man who is absolutely certain that the train he is on is taking him to his death, has been an uncomfortable, and yet at times strangely comforting, reading experience for me. The novel is set in 1943, and features a German infantryman, Andreas, who is bound for the Eastern front [specifically Poland]. In these circumstances, having a premonition of one’s death is not exactly a flight of fancy. Indeed, Andreas had already come close to the ultimate departure once before, in Amiens, France. Unfortunately for him, the situation, for the Germans, has significantly worsened since then, so that losing the war seems likely. One must bear in mind that one’s chances of survival when on the winning side are, at best, in the balance, but when on the losing side? Well…
[German soldiers during WW2, waiting to board a train]
To be a soldier during wartime is to be in an extraordinary predicament, because, regardless of how that war is justified, whether it be in the name of freedom or democracy or whatever, for the people who are actively involved in it, it is literally a fight for life, a battle to stay alive; it is a state of affairs whereby death isn’t simply keeping an eye on you, it is aggressively stalking your heels. To spend weeks, months, years in such a situation must be horribly taxing. Therefore, it is no surprise that soldiers are often mentally damaged by the experience; and there is certainly evidence of that where Andreas is concerned. He is obsessively focussed on certain incidents, replaying them in his mind; he worries that he isn’t praying enough, and when he does pray it is often for the Jews; he frequently wants to cry but cannot; and, as already noted, he is convinced that his death is coming, yet not at some unspecified point in time, but on a specific day, in a specific place.
“He could no longer say, no longer even think: “I don’t want to die.” As often as he tried to form the sentence he thought: I’m going to die…soon.”
For me, Böll handles all this with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill. On the surface, the book is written in the third person, but large parts of it are actually given over to Andreas’ internal monologues. In the beginning, he is terribly afraid, he panics…it is an animal reaction, a feeling that goes beyond reason. He is tormented by the word ‘soon.’ Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. “What a terrible word,” he thinks to himself. When is soon? Soon is uncertain, it is imprecise, it is a black hole, a nothing. Like death itself. And so, almost in order to comfort himself, to be able to get a handle on death, to make it concrete, to give himself something to hold onto, he convinces himself that his death will take place on a Sunday, between Lvov and Cernauti. He makes the uncertain certain. There is something, I think, in the unknown, in nothingness, that we simply cannot bear, because, I guess, we cannot comprehend it. I have been spending time with terminally ill people recently, and there is, in my limited experience, a kind of calmness that descends when death stops being this thing that might grab you unawares, and instead comes to sit beside you.
Once death is certain, and no longer soon, Andreas’ panic subsides somewhat [which is not, by the way, the same as saying that he becomes entirely reconciled to the fate that he believes is his] and he becomes wistful and melancholy, thinking about the places he has been unable to visit, about how he will never again see the girl who serves him coffee. In this way, The Train Was on Time, as with all worthwhile literature, is universal, because we all experience the transitory nature of existence, even if we do not always link that experience to death. Whenever I am on a train I will spend some time looking out of the window, and I am always struck by a painful feeling, an understanding that I will never again see what I am seeing, that even if I take the same train, at the same time, travelling the same route, the sights will not be exactly the same. No single second of your life can ever be repeated; to all intents and purposes, you die thousands of times a day.
“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”
For a novel so preoccupied with death it is not surprising that there is a sense of wanting to escape running through it. In addition to Andreas, there are two other major characters, Willi and a blonde officer. The three men come together when Andreas is asked if he wants to play a game of cards. Of course, for the young infantryman the game, and the company, is not about avoiding boredom, as it might be for us, but about keeping busy, taking his mind off things, off, specifically, the fact that he is likely hurtling towards his final resting place. However, death itself is also a kind of escape, or it could be viewed in that way, especially if one’s life is intolerable. In the case of Willi and the blonde officer, they could be said to be running towards war, towards death, rather than away from it, as one struggles with the break up of his marriage and the other with having once been sexually abused. In fact, Willi drinks large quantities of alcohol, which, of course, also provides an escape from reality, albeit only in the short-term.
In conclusion, I seem to recall the translator and critic Michael Hofmann once writing disparagingly of Heinrich Böll, and I seldom see his work [Böll’s] in lists of great German novels. On this basis, he probably qualifies as underrated. I do not think he ever hit the heights of someone like, say, Thomas Mann or the Austrian Robert Musil, but I have yet to be disappointed with any of his books. However, I ought to point out that, in the early stages, the transitions between third person narrative and the internal monologue are a little clunky to say the least, and that I wasn’t won over by the opening scene in which Andreas speaks to a clergyman on the platform about his desire to avoid death, but these are minor quibbles overall. The Train Was on Time, which was Böll’s first published work, written when in his early thirties, is fascinating, and often beautiful and moving.