First things first, this is not a review. I don’t know how anyone could review this: not because it’s especially beautiful or complete (which is why I have never reviewed The Remains of the Day, for example, which I read earlier this year), but because it is not like any other reading experiences I have had. I can’t critique it because it’s not my place to do so, and because I wouldn’t know what to say. However, it seemed wrong not to mark it in some way, because it is such an extraordinary book. This is essentially just notes about what I thought about when I was reading.
In the UK, at least, WW1 is part of our common consciousness, albeit rather indistinctly. We learn about it from an early age. I think it may account for some of our collective disillusionment with the ruling classes, because everybody knows, or has heard, that our boys were lions led by donkeys. Probably most of us have watched That Scene in the last episode of Blackadder. Lots of us go to see the trenches and the graves at Ypres when we are in school, and we know some (but not all) of In Flanders Fields. I remember writing an essay at the age of 14 in which I debated whether or not the Battle of the Somme was necessary, although I do not remember what I concluded. That’s fitting, when reviewing a book like this.
Everything about All Quiet on the Western Front is grim, and horrifying, and occasionally very funny, so that you remember how human the soldiers on both sides are. When I went with the school to Ypres, I couldn’t make myself understand that WW1 had really happened, even though the proofs I had in front of me were actual artefacts from recent history. It seemed too big and sprawling and awful, two sides throwing thousands of human lives at each other as weapons, the reasons indistinct and distant. I couldn’t get it into my head. Reading this, which is a work of fiction, my experience was the opposite: because it was just a snapshot of the misery and human suffering, just a handful of people painted in a few broad strokes, falling one by one, it was somehow more effective. The very uncertainty of the rationale throws the suffering into sharp relief. In one scene, Bäumer and his comrades try to work out why the war that has ruined their lives has started, and they can’t. The tone is tense and claustrophobic and too terrible to be heartbreaking; like the soldiers, the reader feels simultaneously numb to the horrors on every page, and overwhelmed by them.
As I drew near the end of the book, I found myself wanting to call my brother and check that he really is a nice safe waiter in an exceptionally ordinary restaurant, that he isn’t crowded into a dugout with one hundred, fifty, twenty other men, crawling with lice and drowning in mud and failing to dodge shrapnel. I had to put the book down for a bit, and look around at the train I was on, and see that it was full of young men who were listening to music, talking to their friends, going for nights out. They were not in Ypres, being shot, even though that really happened, 100 years ago. I thought about what it would be like to go into church on a Sunday, and not see half of the familiar faces that make up my family. That really happened to people, 100 years ago.
In probably the most moving part of the book, Remarque comes close to breaking the fourth wall. The main character wonders if some purpose is going to come out of all this horror, that those who survive it will be able to tell of it and ensure that humanity never, ever makes that mistake again, if that’s the nameless thing he’s been yearning for in the trenches—and you can feel the effort of Remarque’s hope, the energy he has put into scraping it together. Yet this is his record of the first world war. Four years later, the Nazis banned it and burnt it; thirty years later, my grandpa was serving in Africa. Like Remarque and like his characters, he did not leave the war behind when it ended. I was only five when he died, but it is clear from the way that my dad talks that WW2 cast a very long shadow over Grandpa, who always hated Bonfire Night because fireworks sound so much like shelling. I do not know if, like Bäumer, he gradually forgot how to take pleasure because he felt that he was only fit for war, if he had to relearn how to be a civilian when the war ended. The trauma and darkness that Remarque depicts stealing over the soldiers is the more devastating because it happened to another entire generation, just a handful of years later.
These are some of the things I thought about when I was reading. It’s not the most coherent collection of thoughts, but it’s a novel that is visceral and disorientating, and it’s difficult to write clearly about an experience like that.
The blurb of my edition calls this the most powerful anti-war book ever written. It’s an accolade it absolutely deserves.
Note: I received this wonderful book through the Mini Ninja Book Swap. It is an experience I should have blogged about and didn’t, and now it’s too late, and my jubilation at sending and receiving books and letters does not at all fit with the tone of this review. However, I will do better next time!