The Train Was On Time, by Heinrich Böll

In another war novel by Böll that does not feature battle or action, a young soldier, Private Andreas, boards a train and is immediately overcome with the certainty that he will soon die.

As the train rolls on, Andreas’ certainty grows, and he even begins to narrow down exactly the time and place that he will die. This unavoidable surety that his own demise is coming very soon is the entirety of the novel. Andreas notes each place that he will no longer visit, and how every line he crosses is final and irreversible. He sees the world around him shrinking as he perceives himself being carried toward his end.

“Every border has a terrible finality. There’s a line, and that’s it. And the train goes across it just as it would go across a dead body, or a live body. “

While the opening pages struck me as somewhat melodramatic, the writing in this novel is terribly subtle, and builds on itself to create an overwhelming sense of impending and dread. And as with the other Böll novel I’ve read, there are many layers beneath the surface that probably will require a reread to appreciate (easy, as it’s only a little over 100 pages.)

What really struck me, aside from the powerful tone of the novel, were the little personal memories and details that made Andreas so identifiable. He treasures, for example, a secret memory of a woman’s eyes, an unknown woman who he made eye-contact with for only a second as he marched through France. He thinks of her and prays for her every day, and imagines he can someday go back to that village and try to find her. The fantasy and desperation of this idea makes the surrounding tone of impending death even more powerful.

Give it a read, unless thinking too much about death gives you anxiety…


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