(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Closely Watched Trains tells the story of a young man’s coming of age in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The novella, written in the first person, presents a wry account of the protagonist’s comic struggles to achieve manhood. The plot unfolds in a series of disconnected episodes, using flashbacks, plot compression, and surrealistic imagery to unify the narration. The dreamlike tone is enhanced by the portraits of ordinary people surviving extraordinary events.

Milos Hrma, the protagonist, is an apprentice railroad dispatcher working in a small station in a provincial Czech town. The time is the winter of 1945, during the final months of World War II, when the Nazis are fighting desperately to maintain their eastern front against advancing Soviet troops. The Nazis have already lost the air war over Czechoslovakia, and Allied dive-bombers are continually disrupting German rail transportation to the front. The countryside is littered with debris from aerial dogfights. Milos has just returned to his dispatcher’s post after being away on sick leave for three months, having cut his wrists in a hotel bathroom after finding himself unable to make love with his girlfriend. Though he is twenty-two, he has never been with a woman, and he lacks self-confidence. His fear of impotence led to his attempted suicide, though the townspeople think he did it simply to avoid work.

Milos comes from an eccentric family. His great-grandfather, a retired army pensioner, was beaten to death by a group of unemployed quarry workers. His grandfather, a circus hypnotist, was crushed when he tried to prevent German tanks from entering Prague. His father, a retired railroad engineer, collects scrap metal.

Milos’ troubles began when he took his girlfriend Masha to spend a weekend at her uncle’s photography studio in Prague. Milos was sleeping in the studio, under a backdrop of a large airplane, in front of which people had themselves photographed as pilots and observers. During the night, Masha came in and pressed herself against him. They embraced and were about to make love when Milos...

(The entire section is 862 words.)