Sunday, April 10, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, was a German WWI veteran who wrote honestly about war, drawing on his own experience in the trenches.  He was conscripted at age 18 and spent six weeks on the Western Front before being wounded. Remarque documented with great clarity the details of WWI as the world had never yet seen or heard them. All Quiet on the Western Front was banned in Poland for being pro-German, and also (ironically?) in Nazi Germany for its negative portrayal of war. This novel realistically portrays the conditions under which soldiers lived and fought, circumstances which led to their personal, intellectual and emotional undoing. 

The prose is spare, constantly moving the action forward, allowing the characters no time for reflection, for reflection is a luxury not to be found when all one's energies must be concentrated on the task of staying alive, preserving a life from which all meaning has been stripped, from which all future has been wrenched, from which all hope has been snuffed, life itself finally becoming a means to an end, a welcome end in the silence of death. That's the ultimate message in the ironic title: there is no quiet to be found in the front lines of war, not as long as life persists. Paul Baumer finds no solace outside of death.

All Quiet on the Western Front can even be considered dystopian; after all, can you think of a more bleak and miserable existence than that of a soldier on the front lines of a brutal early 20th-century-style war, fighting for the losing side?  This was the complete opposite of utopia, and the story is even more powerful because it is essentially REAL. Many war novels glorify conflict (or at least winning), and hail as heroes those who risk their lives to save or help a fellow soldier, without asking why the "hero" was forced to come to another's aid in the first place. The entire war theater remains in the background, unquestioned, continuing to requisition young people from both sides and grind them against each other into oblivion. Not so for Remarque, who manages through narrative to question the very setting of the novel.

Main character: Paul Baumer
Loyal friends: die one by one
Jarring turning point: Returning home on leave, Paul realizes he'd rather be back at the Front than with his family. In giving up anything that he had to live for or come home to, he chooses his own fate.
Horrors: gas, amputation, tanks, barbed wire, rats, hand-to-hand combat
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be drafted
This book makes you want to: send copies of it to people who should read it  (I'll leave that open to your interpretation)
Quote: "Ah Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you? Who else is there that has any claim on me but you? Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it."

1 comment:

bren j. said...

And yet our children may one day be...drafted, that is....