Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal was originally written in 1949 just after the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. At that time is was called The Legend of Cain and when Hrabal read it in 1950 to a gathering of the underground literary group he belonged to it was very well received. A book obsessed with death at a time when writers were supposed to be writing books painting a rosy picture of life under Communism, the book was not published until 1968 during the Prague Spring. Closely Watched Trains is a rewrite of The Legend of Cain that focused less on death and more on sex. Even so, it was not published until 1965 and Hrabal was accused by those who knew the original of prettying it up.
Closely Watched Trains is a short book, a novella or a very long short story depending on your definition. The story takes place at the train station in 1945 in the small town of Chocen. Milos Hrma is our 22-year-old narrator. He is an apprentice traffic dispatcher and is just back on duty after spending time in the hospital as a result of a suicide attempt. The reason he tried to kill himself was because he didn’t think he was a man–the girl he loved had offered herself to him and he could not keep an erection.
Along with Milos we have the stationmaster who keeps pigeons and proudly walks around the platform, the birds cooing and fluttering on his shoulders and outstretched arms. There is also Dispatcher Hubicka who is in charge of teaching Milos how to do his job. Dispatcher Hubicka, who has a reputation for being a lady’s man, is currently at the center of a scandal because one evening he lifted the telegraphist’s skirt and printed all the station’s stamps on her behind.
Milos tells the story in such a matter of fact and emotionless way that there is a surreality that spreads over everything making the normal seem strange and the strange normal. I wasn’t sure what to make of it while I was reading and I didn’t feel engaged with the story until, at the end when I found myself crying and I realized it had crept under my skin. I’ve been thinking about it for several days now and I am still not sure what to make of it, only that it is funny, dark, and sad. It is going to be hanging around with me for awhile. I’d like to re-read it sometime. It is a book like a pool that appears shallow but is actually very deep.