I put off reading the book after receiving it via a pink parcel two weeks ago, mainly because I saw the cover and I felt that it was an intense and dry documentary of World War II. I thought my good friend may have had a strange moment to think that this would be something I will enjoy.
Oh boy, was I so wrong! My friend chose this book perfectly. He said that Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement unveiled the French perspective of the war and that this book now shows the German perspective. After reading both, I now want to delve and study what the history books have to say about the war. It’s nice to read both sides.
The language was far from dry and dull. Midway in the novel, I was in tears. Remarque is brilliant with his prose as he depicted the details and the transformation of young men into soldiers in the face of being assigned in the war’s front lines. I was not surprised to find in the short bio at the end of the book that Remarque was wounded five times in World War I and he wrote from direct experience. The cover said that this is the greatest war novel of all time. I have not read any other war novel to agree, but it really made a humungous impression on me:
I thought I’d heard enough about war from the testosterone-laden films that hit the box office because of the gore and the bloodshed. But that was not even half the picture painted when placed side by side with this novel. I know it’s too depressing for a weekend read, but I managed to squeeze it in by multitasking.
And I must say, this novel choice is timely given that there is a brewing conflict in a nearby country and I’ve been pensively reflecting about that event for around a week now. Last I heard, the Koreans are girding their loins for a possible head to head combat with each other. I am praying so hard that it won’t erupt into something that can no longer be controlled. For the first time in my life, I agree with China’s imploring pleas to their ally. They stopped working together in the industrial zones. I wish all of them can read this in their native Hanggul language and see how senseless this bloodshed can get especially when it erupts into a larger scale.
Despite the fact that the book was set in a war zone, there are still many items that normal people can relate to. His disappointments and the crushed personal bubble of safety was written in an artistic and disgruntled manner: “The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness.”
Is it only during wartime that we feel such disdain and disappointment over those who are “superior” to us only by name, spread of influence, and by socioeconomic lot in life? I feel it every single day without having to wear combat boots or trudging through barbed wires. And for countless times, I felt the helplessness of being subject to a person’s irascible and ridiculous demands in many facets of life. A wearying exercise.
I wish I can just sink into the lobotomized figure of dumbness and not have to recognize what transpires when this debasing kind of thing happens too frequently in life. It’s a long accepted reality that intellect is not directly proportional to wallet content or promotional probability.
And the savage “superior” usually like to dangle what little power they have whether to the point of absurdity or not, if only to demonstrate that the power trips are to their favor and to the dismal misery of the ones smarter than but subjugated to them. And for what? At least in Remarque’s war novel, all men had to poop in the same humble makeshift wooden latrines, lined together equally as men regardless of rank for war makes no trifling distinctions or discrimination. In real life, we do not have that. We only have comfort rooms and we cannot even catapult these despicable characters’ self-imposed feces back to them as they rightfully deserve. We remain the janitors meekly expected to clean up the mess after they just made a jolly poop fest of the floor.
In the stream of consciousness that have made many other wonderful novels so addicting, Remarque produces the possibly universally understandable conditions that make any (pessimistic and unflinching) reader feel like he can read through minds: “In himself man is essentially a beast, only he butters it over like a slice of bread with a little decorum… The mischief is merely that each one has much too much power… And the more insignificant a man has been in civil life the worse it takes him.
The novel expounded fully on the intimate and perverted manner of comradeship that spells as an extension’s of a soldier’s life in the face of imminent and perpetual danger. The entire story was written in the voice of Paul Baumer, a young man of twenty made old and worn out by the war where he was sent. Of his bestfriend Katzcinsky, he only had the kindest words and the utmost grief when in the same war that they met, he lost him: “We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death.”
The thoughts of the soldier echoed the sad voice of young generations, whether war-torn or not: “We are forlorn, like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial– I believe we are lost.”
But despite the riveting flow of events and the wonderful way it was written, I only had one favorite quote that I hold on to in the same way that a soldier holds on to his bayonet when succored to the lowest pits of the war zone’s craters: “The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait.”
Books do bring hope, and I cannot imagine a life where I cannot from time to time bury my eyes and intensely read a good book. The world may blubber needlessly for all I care, but I always need my intellectual fix and the feast of my senses come alive when the words fly out of the page and communicate to me in ways that no other form of entertainment can. I could hardly care about other things when I am in such a mood.
And while they declared that all was quiet on the Western front for this book, I revel in the intellectually stimulating disquietude that this book has caused. I must douse myself with lighter reading material. Reading this after Tolstoy, Plath, and Rimbaud certainly bungled my writing into deep seriousness. I need to switch. Even in reading gore for artistic pleasure, one needs to balance. This lethargy might weigh too heavily and translate into real life if I am not that careful. But why it is so easy to write when it hurts so bad, it eludes me. I just know that it does. And the anguish of these authors, I willingly share even in parts if it means that it will help make me write in a better way.