Closely Watched Trains

by Bohumil Hrabal
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With respect to Milos as a first-person narrator in Bohumil Hrabal's novella Closely Watched Trains, how does Milos's "voice" (word choice, what he chose to focus on, his thoughts and feelings) affect the reader?  Is Milos a trustworthy narrator, meaning can one take everything he discussed at face value, or is there any evidence of  understatements, exaggerations, or lying?  Does the reader like or feel sympathy for his character, dislike or find him questionable, dismissive, or silly?  What is the reader's opinion of Milos? How well does the film translate Milos as not only a character but also as the narrator in the film?  What was added/deleted/kept/changed as far as his character in the film from the character in the novella? Were the other characters from the novella (Station Master Lansky and Hubicka specifically) effectively represented in the film version?

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As we are limited in space, below are a few ideas to help get you started.We can most definitely see Milos Hrma, the protagonist, as an untrustworthy narrator. Even within the first couple of pages, we see evidence of understatement . In fact, based on...

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As we are limited in space, below are a few ideas to help get you started.

We can most definitely see Milos Hrma, the protagonist, as an untrustworthy narrator. Even within the first couple of pages, we see evidence of understatement. In fact, based on the novella's forward written by Josef Skvorecky, Bohumil Hrabal wrote the novella from the perspective of socialist realism. According to Skvorecky, William Dean Howells, America's first realist author, preached to American writers to "concentrate on 'the rosier aspects of American life, because they are the more American'" (Closely Watched Train, "Foreword," p. viii). The same can actually be seen as true for Soviet literature. Soviet literature focused on the "rosier aspects" of Communism in order to eradicate all criticism and portray Communism in a positive light. Hence, even in Czechoslovakia, socialist realism portrayed life as rosier than it was. Skvorecky also notes that Hrabal wrote the novella in 1948, after the war, a time when the Communists began in Czechoslovakia "an era of 'class liquidation' and 'layered graves'" (p. xi). In other words, the number of those executed as being dangerous to the Communist party were so high that the so-called traitors were being "buried one on top of the other, in layers, to save space" (p. xi). Therefore, any literature that portrayed Communism or Czechoslovakia in a negative light meant certain death. Hence, Hrabal wrote Closely Watched Train from the perspective of social realism, using Milos as an unreliable narrator, in order to portray the war period as a much happier time than it was.

As it has already been said, evidence of understatement, which adds comic effect, can be seen in the very first couple of pages. In these first couple of pages, Milos describes a plane that had been shot down with the wing having been blasted from the plane's fuselage, or plane's main body. Milos's narration grows comical as he describes the aftermath of the wing being torn from the plane. Specifically, he describes the screws and nuts that were also torn loose as raining down on the town's square to "peck at heads of several women there" (1). We must remember that the plane was traveling hundreds of miles per hour when the wing was torn free; therefore, those little screws and nuts were also traveling hundreds of miles per hour plus being pulled by gravity as they fell towards the earth. We must also factor in the distance that the screws and nuts are falling from. If we take these factors into account, we see that the falling of nuts and screws on top of women's heads felt absolutely nothing like a "peck"; in reality, just those little falling nuts and screws could have caused a great deal of physical damage to a human head. Therefore, the description of nuts and bolts pecking at women's heads is clearly an understatement.

Another example of an understatement can be seen in his description of the falling wing itself. We are led to picture the same sort of motions a leaf falling from a tree might undergo as the leaf swings back and forth through the air until it final settles on the ground. We are led to see the wing of the plane doing the exact same thing, which probably is an accurate description. A falling wing would have similar aerodynamics as a falling leaf. However, what is comical is Milos's description of the townspeople's response to the wing swinging back and forth "like a gigantic pendulum" as it floats down to the ground of the village's square (p. 1). He describes that all the people in the square who had been dining in the two restaurants came out onto the square to observe the falling wing. As the floating wing swung back and forth, Milos describes the townspeople as "rushing from one side [of the square] to the other, and then back again" (p. 1). What's particularly comical is Milos's word choice "scuttling" to describe the townspeople as "scuttling" back and forth (p. 1). All in all, the words "rushing" and "scuttling" give the reader the mental image of a cartoon. The cartoon characters silently and peacefully scuttle back and forth, their eyes towards the sky, as they rush to dodge the oncoming danger. However, think about the scene realistically. Can you now hear the townspeople screaming as they try and rush back and forth to avoid being crushed by the giant falling wing? So, hence we see that even this description of the townspeople's reaction to the falling wing is certainly an understatement. What's even more interesting is that on the second page, we learn that Milos himself wasn't even at the square when the wing fell to the square, crashing into the garden. He did not even come to take a look at the wing until "half an hour after the dog-fight," or possibly half an hour after the wing landed (p. 2). Therefore, Milos's comic description of the townspeople's reaction to the falling wing can be considered not just an understatement but a lie in the narration. Throughout the novella, we can further see evidence of even exaggerations and not just understatements and lies.

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