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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal is the coming of age story of Milos Hrma, a young man in Czechoslovakia. The story is set in Prague towards the end of the Second World War. It is narrated in first person and offers a satirical explanation of the main character’s quest...

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Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal is the coming of age story of Milos Hrma, a young man in Czechoslovakia. The story is set in Prague towards the end of the Second World War. It is narrated in first person and offers a satirical explanation of the main character’s quest to attain manhood. Milos is a coy railroad intern who surrounds himself with fantasy to escape the harsh realities of the world. Dead people and ruined buildings define his reality.

He watches military trains every day. They transport people who are injured, refugees, and animals. Most of the refugees lost their homes during the war. Hrabal uses humor to paint a picture of the daily lives of the people in Prague and the German occupation during this period.

The narrator discusses his transition into manhood. Milos is worried that he might be impotent. He cuts his wrists in an attempt to commit suicide. He would like to prove to his girlfriend, Masha, that he is a man. Despite hopelessness and despair in his surrounding environment, Milos is motivated to stay alive so that he can prove to everyone that he is a man.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862

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 wilted. Disappointed, Masha crept back to her aunt’s room, leaving Milos embarrassed and humiliated. The absurd scene climaxes when a bomb from an Allied raid blows the wall of the studio away and exposes a sign among the scattered debris: finished in five minutes.

On Milos’ first day at work after recuperating from his suicide attempt, he learns that dispatcher Ladislav Hubicka, who prides himself on being a ladies’ man, has got himself into trouble for printing station stamps on the backside of the lady telegraphist, Virginia Svata. The girl’s mother has threatened to complain to the Gestapo.

Milos contrasts his suicide attempt with his behavior during a real test of his courage when he is taken hostage aboard a German close-surveillance military transport train. The train has been delayed by the Czech dispatchers in his district, even though it was ordered to be cleared—an act that could be considered sabotage. He is taken aboard the locomotive by the German SS commander and two young guards, who hold automatic pistols to his side. Milos is certain that he will be killed, but the commander notices the scars on his wrists and decides to release him. Milos’ colleagues at the station welcome him back, just as Slusny, the traffic chief, arrives to hold the inquiry about Hubicka’s behavior.

Disciplinary action is soon recommended against Hubicka. Undeterred, Hubicka proposes that he and Milos try to sabotage a German ammunition train. The two men arrange a caution signal to slow the German transport long enough for Milos to drop a bomb into one of the middle cars. Milos must stand on the signal tower above the track, with the explosives, waiting for the train to approach. The bomb is smuggled into the station by Viktoria Freie, a Resistance fighter, who initiates Milos into the mysteries of love on the stationmaster’s couch. Once Milos has thus proved his manhood, he is ready for his final challenge—blowing up the German ammunition train. He also feels confident enough now to agree to visit Masha again on her next free day.

Later that snowy evening, as the German train approaches the station, it whistles for an all-clear signal. As Milos climbs the signal tower with the bomb under his arm, the signal turns green and the train approaches. Milos waits until the fourteenth car passes and drops the bomb exactly in the middle of the train. As the last car departs, Milos is spotted by the guard and the two men fire at each other. Both are wounded, and Milos falls from the signal tower as the guard drops from the rear of the train. The men embrace in a macabre dance of death, one shot in the lungs and the other in the stomach. The German’s legs move in a frenzy of pain, and Milos shoots him in the head before he himself weakens from his own wound. He holds the dead German’s hands as the ammunition train blows up in the distance. As he loses consciousness, Milos repeats into the ears of the dead German soldier, “You should have stayed at home.”

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