This review is of the English translation of a German book.
Well, that was depressing. I’ve been on a lifelong quest to find the most depressing book in the history of books, and this one has been recommended to me many, many times. I’m not convinced that it’s the most depressing book ever, but it has to be near the top of the list. These quotes capture the tone of the story nicely:
“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.” – All Quiet on the Western Front
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.” – All Quiet on the Western Front
“Abyss of sorrow”? Depressing, right?
This novel tells the story of Paul Bäumer, who joined the German army as a teenager and was sent to fight in WWI. After years of endless trench battles and near-death experiences, Paul’s body and mind start falling apart. He tries to be a good soldier, but as he watches people die, he can’t help questioning the point of this war.
If you’re looking for an authentic war story, I’d recommend this one. The author joined the German military as an eighteen-year-old and fought on the Western Front during WWI. He spent a lot of time in military hospitals after nearly getting killed by shrapnel. He knew what he was talking about when he wrote this book.
The best part of All Quiet on the Western Front is how it captures both the personal and impersonal nature of war. Paul is fighting because the government of his country told him to fight. The government’s enemies are not his enemies. He has no reason to hate the people he’s killing. Paul is very aware that killing people is just a job that he was given, and the people who are trying to kill him are just doing the job they were given. The war changes the course of his life forever, but he has no personal reason to be there. It’s just a job.
“Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” – All Quiet on the Western Front
Paul understands that government officials are making all of the decisions from the safety of their offices while the soldiers do the dirty work. Governments are the real enemies, not the people in the opposite trench.
“It is very queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men.” – All Quiet on the Western Front
The book also does a nice job of showing the trouble that soldiers have adjusting to normal life after they leave a war. Most of this book consists of droning, hypnotic violence. There are constant explosions, gunshots, and people dying. When that suddenly goes away, both the characters and the reader are unsettled. The book captures how difficult it is for young soldiers to go from fighting for their lives to sitting in their childhood bedrooms, staring at their bookshelves and wondering what to do next.
One of the problems that I have with translated books is that I never know if an author intended a book to be written a certain way, or if the translator translated it that way. Some parts of this book seem oddly formal: the narrator uses “thee” and “thou.” I wondered why. I know this is an old book (first published in 1928), but it’s not that old. The random formal moments seem weird to me. I don’t know if the original German version is like that.
I also wish we got to know the characters better. I realize that personality probably takes a backseat when you’re trying not to get exploded, but I didn’t feel anything for the characters. Most of them are names and not much else. Even the narrator lacks personality.
The cover of this book calls it “The Greatest War Novel of All Time.” I’m not sure about “All Time,” but if you’re interested in war novels, this is a must-read. It has the authenticity that only an author who has been there, done that can capture.