Closely Watched Trains

by Bohumil Hrabal
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Bohumil Hrabal novels portray a combination of tragedy and humor common in Czech literature. In a discussion about Closely Watched Trains, what would be two good questions to begin analyzing this theme?

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Hello! You asked about tragedy and humor in Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains. This novel presents a heart-breaking coming of age story set against a background of war and uncertainty. It is WWII and the protagonist, Milos Hrma, is an apprentice railroad dispatcher working in a small Czech town.

Milos is young and terribly gauche in the love-making department. He is desperate to prove his prowess to his girlfriend, Masha, during a weekend at her uncle's photography studio in Prague, but fails to perform manfully. Ashamed, he tries to slit his wrists in a hotel bathroom. He survives his suicide attempt, but does not return to work for three months. There are two tragedies here: Milos' sexual humiliation and subsequent societal humiliation when people speculate that he is just trying to get out of work. Yet, we can't help laughing when an Allied bomb blows away a portion of the studio wall exposing a sign declaring, "finished in five minutes." While many young and virile men his age are able to perform admirably in the sexual department in five minutes, Milos' foray into the sexual arena is "finished in five minutes" without any of the hoped for sexual release both Milos and Masha would have delighted in.

Meanwhile, Milos' friend Hubicka has no such hang-ups about his sexuality. Through Hubicka's character, Hrabal juxtaposes comedic sexual mischief (Hubicka sticking the station's official stamps on the backside of the lady telegraphist, Virginia Svata) with an underlying national despair. While making love on the station-master's couch with a lady passenger, the amorous couple tears the couch in their passion. The station master is horrified, but somehow his reaction is comedic in itself because he is so absurdly melodramatic in his indignation.

"They’d torn the couch!" wailed the station-master. "Ripped the station-master’s couch in half! That is what comes of it when there’s nothing above folks any more!"

In the end, with the help of Viktoria Freie, a Resistance fighter, Milos is at long last initiated into the world of grown-up delights and he can now try out his new-found skills on Masha. However, tragedy strikes before he can do so; in an attempt to blow up a German ammunition train, he is fatally wounded by a German guard. Both die, but not before enveloping each other in a macabre embrace of death as they fall from the train. The tragedy: Milo proves his courage as a man, but the reward he is handed is a deadly embrace in the arms of an enemy instead of a passionate entwining in the arms of his girlfriend.

Alright, now we have a bit of context to ask some questions that might analyze this theme of tragedy and comedy. Pick any you think might be helpful to you or present variations on the questions below:

1) How does Hrabal show that life continues in its urgent necessity despite the brutal realities of war?

2) How does Hrabal juxtapose the sexual antics of his characters with the fatal realities of war to highlight the tenacity of the human spirit?

3) How do Milos' eventual sexual maturity and parallel political maturity/courage highlight the importance of tragicomedy in drawing attention to the brutal realities of Nazi totalitarianism?

4) How is Hrabal's use of comedy within a sexual and tragic context a form of rebellion against Nazi oppression? (Grim humor can be used as a form of rebellion, a stubborn refusal to accept one's suffering at the hands of brutal conquerors. As Freud says, "Humor is not resigned, it is rebellious...refuses to undergo suffering, asseverates-declares earnestly- the invincibility of one's ego against the real world.")

I hope this provides some ideas for you. As mentioned above, you can always play around with the angles in the questions above to analyze the combination of tragedy and humor in Closely Watched Trains.

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