Friday, November 19, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

"But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. 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?"

The front of my copy of All Quiet proclaims it to be, “the best war novel of all time.” Now that I’ve read it, I’m not sure I agree—I’d put The Things They Carried above it, for one—but it is an easy-to-read, yet poetic, novel that manages to capture the brutality of war from a perspective that’s often neglected, that of the losers.

All Quiet is narrated by Paul, a German infantryman during World War I. This in itself was fairly interesting—as important as World War I was, as much as it defined a generation, it’s been largely overshadowed by World War II, both in the public mind and in terms of art. Everyone knows the Nazis were the bad guys in WWII; far fewer could describe the base conflict in the Great War. But I digress.

Paul is a pleasant, if somewhat unaffected narrator. Most of his observations toe the line between dryly clinical and deeply personal. It’s an interesting tone that’s difficult to capture in an excerpt, but one which serves the novel well, keeping it appropriately personal and connected as things get worse and worse for Paul and his fellow soldiers.

The most impressive feat All Quiet accomplishes, I think, is the way in which it inverts our sympathies. Paul is a German, and, as an American, I should logically be hoping that he loses, but—especially ironically, since we all know how the war ended—I never reached that point. Paul presents Germans, Frenchman, and Russians—no Americans get facetime in the book—as simply people, not as enemies or ghouls. The starving Russians in the prison camp are presented as sympathetically as the starving Germans at base camp. This is the overwhelming observation I took away from All Quiet, aside from the obvious “war is hell”: art allows us to see life through the eyes of the other. Movies can do this too, but books are somehow more convincing to me—there are no German military uniforms to serve as a visual reminder of sides. Instead, there is a deep cast of characters, composed of humans rather than weaponized robots, who, as Paul states late in the novel, could, if the right people were to sign a paper, be fighting with and for the men who were their enemies only moments before.

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