Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle
It’s been a long time since I read a book that had a such profound effect on me as All Quiet on the Western Front. I think its impact has been greater than expected because the book itself exceeded all of my expectations, in every way.
The story is told in the first person, by Paul Baumer, a young German soldier fighting in World War One. It tells of the everyday living conditions of the German soldiers; of the daily struggles, battles, friendships and threats, of the acts of war that were mundane, not unusual, or heroic. When Paul goes home on leave, he feels like he no longer belongs; he doesn’t know how to be a civilian any more, and struggles to see where he will fit in when the war is over. He is relieved to return to his regiment, to his friends, even though he knows it is to the chance of death that he returns. As he watches his friends fall, he tends towards a madness that must be a common scenario during war.
We get back pretty well. There is no further attack by the enemy…in spite of our great hunger we do not think of the provisions. Then gradually we become something like men again.
Night again. We are deadened by the strain – a deadly tension that scrapes along one’s spine like a gapped knife. Our legs refuse to move, our hands tremble, our bodies are a thin skin stretched painfully over repressed madness, over an almost irresistible, bursting roar.
There are sentences that are beautifully written, that evoke a sense of peace and stillness, followed by paragraphs that are so fast-paced that they create a sense of the frantic intensity that must have been trench warfare during this time.
He staggers up and runs. I keep beside him. We have to get over a hedge; it is higher than we are. Kropp seizes a branch, I heave him up by the leg, he cries out, I give him a swing and he flies over. With one bound I follow him and fall into a ditch that lies behind the hedge.
Monotonously the lorries sway, monotonously come the calls, monotonously falls the rain. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up in the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich’s grave; it falls in our hearts.
As could be expected, death is a recurring theme in this novel; it is impossible to write or read about war without knowledge of the incredible number of lives that were (and continue to be) lost. Remarque has a unique ability to treat this subject both poetically and soberly; he does not try to cover it up or pretend it wouldn’t have invaded every man’s thoughts during the time in the trenches, and this adds to the powerful profundity of the story.
We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down – now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger.
The story also offers us a view of war that is poignant and, for me, right on the mark. Remarque’s commentary on the futility of war is as relevant today as it was at the time of publication:
“I think it is more of a kind of fever,” says Albert. “No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn’t want the war, the others say the same thing – and yet half the world is in it all the same.”
“But there are more lies told by the other side than by us,” say I; “just think of those pamphlets the prisoners have on them, where it says that we eat Belgian children. The fellows who write those lies ought to go and hang themselves. They are the real culprits.”
How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
The ending of the story is possibly one of the most poignant and profound endings I’ve read in a long time. I read it twice before closing the book, and it echoed in my brain for days afterwards:
He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that I think everyone should read; I can’t say I enjoyed it, as such, but it has had an effect on me that means I’d not hesitate to recommend it to you all.