|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Michael Wood on The Train Was On Time by Heinrich Böll
From "Good Germans": The Train Was on Time
August 3rd, 2011
[The following is an excerpt from a longer essay on Böll's novels in these pages.]
IN THE TRAIN WAS ON TIME — the title itself being a mocking allusion to one of German and Italian fascism’s most ludicrously touted achievements — a young soldier headed for the Eastern front has a precise premonition of his death, the exact where and when. He may be right — the novel ends with him as sole survivor of an attack on a car he is in, not in a battle, but we don’t know how long he will live or how his story continues — but the point is his conviction rather than the plot. The whole novel, in other words, for all its meticulous realism about trains and stations and food, is a long offbeat meditation, a stream of uncertain consciousness, the portrait of a mind honorably in trouble within a situation of historical disgrace. Billiards at Half Past Nine is a brilliant portrayal of one day in the life of a whole family: the architects and madwoman we have seen, their children and friends and old foes. The time is 1958, but the day is full of memories, a whole local history, and the remarkable fact about this novel, as indeed about most of Böll’s work, is that while the villains are true villains, as monstrous and smiling as one could (not) wish, his more sympathetic characters are often far from admirable: ironic, aloof, unkind. But they are human. They have not sold their souls, and, whether atheists or believers, they are not hiding from God.