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Closely Watched Trains, a 1965 coming-of-age novella by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. As the main character and narrator, twenty-two year old Milos Hrma tells the story of his time working at a village railway during the second World War that leads to his first love and surprisingly his brave and tragic death.

His sexual inexperience is in contrast to the station's womanizing senior dispatcher Ladislav Hubika. Despite the station master's distaste at his actions, Ladislav continuously brings young ladies back to the station at night, including the station telegraphist, Virginia Svata. It is his exploits and gung-ho attitude that encourages Milos to try for a relationship with the attractive female conductor Masha.

The story comes to an abrupt close when Milos proves his bravery once and for all by blowing up a Nazi ammunition train, killing himself in the process.

Other characters include Viktoria Freie, a member of the Czech resistance, Councillor Zednicek, a Nazi collaborator, as well as Milo's grandfather, great grandfather, father, mother, and great Aunt Beatrice.

Characters Discussed

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Milo Hrma

Milo Hrma (MEE-lohsh HUHR-mah), the narrator, an apprentice train dispatcher. Inexperienced and innocent at the age of twenty-two, Milo views the bizarre and brutal events around him with morally noncommittal curiosity. Following his first sexual encounter, which is a failure, he attempts suicide. Although rescued, he remains preoccupied by doubts regarding his manhood until drawn into a plot to blow up a Nazi ammunition train. In acting deliberately, he finds the answer to his persistent question, “Am I a man?”

Ladislav Hubika

Ladislav Hubika, (hew-BIHCH-keh), the senior dispatcher. Hubika, whose name means “nice lips,” draws Milo’ envy and admiration with his success with women. He is under investigation for imprinting all the station’s rubber stamps on the bare buttocks of the female telegraphist late one night. A fearless nonconformist, he is a key figure in the plot to blow up the munitions train.


Lánsk , the stationmaster. Lánsk takes great pride in his Venetian armchair, Persian carpet, and marble clock. Hot-tempered and exacting as a boss and as a husband, he dissipates his rages by bellowing into a heating vent. Although careful to conform outwardly to Nazi rule, he symbolically protests the brutal takeover of neighboring Poland by killing all of his Nuremberg pigeons (a German breed) and replacing them with Polish silver-points.

Virginia Svatá

Virginia Svatá, the station telegraphist. An attractive, fun-loving young woman, Virginia willingly participates in Hubika’s lascivious escapade and refuses to incriminate him during the investigation.


Masha, a conductor, Milo’ girlfriend. Young and exuberant, Masha easily forms a mutual attachment to Milo while they are painting a fence together. Blaming her own inexperience for their sexual fiasco, she sticks by Milo after his suicide attempt, making a date with him shortly before the sabotage is to be carried out.

Viktoria Freie

Viktoria Freie, a member of the Czech resistance. The name of this well-endowed beauty means “victorious freedom” and is probably a code name. Viktoria not only delivers the bomb that is to be used in the sabotage but also provides Milo with an unforgettable sexual initiation that dispels his self-doubt and inspires him to act courageously.

Councillor Zednicek

Councillor Zednicek, the head of a commission to determine whether a criminal charge should be lodged against Hubika for his indiscretion. Zednicek has a son in the German army and is himself an opportunistic collaborator with the Nazis.


Slun (SLEWSH-nee), the traffic chief who arrives at the station with Councillor Zednicek. He enjoys exercising his authority and intimidating the subordinate employees of the railroad.

Mrs. Lánsk

Mrs. Lánsk , the stationmaster’s wife. Although her tender care of her geese and other animals seems contradicted by the ease with which she slaughters them, she is still respected by Milo, who seeks her tutelage in lovemaking.

Countess Kinská

Countess Kinská, an equestrienne whose family castle stands as a reminder of Czech aristocracy. She stops at the station on her rides and converses with Lánsk while Hubika weaves erotic fantasies about her.

Milo’ father

Milo’ father, a train engineer who retired early. He collects and salvages all kinds of scrap.

Milo’ grandfather

Milo’ grandfather, a circus hypnotist, killed in an attempt to turn back German tanks by means of hypnosis.

Milo’ great-grandfather

Milo’ great-grandfather, a veteran who was wounded at the age of eighteen during a student uprising. He flaunted his disability pension by drinking rum in front of people hard at work and finally died from one of the many beatings he provoked.

Milo’ mother

Milo’ mother, a nurturing maternal figure who polishes the buttons on Milo’ uniform and watches for him from behind a window curtain.

Great-Aunt Beatrice

Great-Aunt Beatrice, a nurse who takes care of dying burn victims and is well acquainted with death.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

Milos, the narrator-protagonist of Closely Watched Trains, is an ordinary young man trying to grow up in a world distorted by forces beyond his control; Milos has the misfortune to come of age during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Not only must he cope with the usual adjustments of gender and identity, but he must also decide whether to join the Czech Resistance. In his poetic account of Milos’ coming of age, Bohumil Hrabal stresses his ordinary, even antiheroic qualities: his innocence and immaturity, his lack of family distinction, his timidity and inexperience with women, and his overreaction to his problem with his girlfriend. The rich humor and pathos of this novel arise from Milos’ fumbling attempts to come to terms with his absurd situation. At times, he seems to be something of a Chaplinesque character, asserting his humanity in a world largely hostile and indifferent to his needs. Milos wants to do his duty and prove himself as a man, though his first efforts are inadequate. The emotional complexity of his responses to his dilemma create the poignant comic tone of Hrabal’s novella.

The two poles of Milos’ world are love and war. In each, he must prove his ability in order to gain self-respect and overcome his postadolescent diffidence. In a series of comic episodes, Milos fails or succeeds not so much through his own efforts as through chance. He has been in love with the young conductor, Masha, ever since they kissed through a fence while painting at the railway yards. Masha, in turn, shows affection for Milos, but before they can consummate their love, Milos must be initiated by an older and more experienced woman, Viktoria Freie. Hrabal shows wisdom and humor in dealing with the problems of sex. Milos’ failure to make love to Masha and his subsequent embarrassment are humanizing touches that make his later heroism all the more impressive.

The other characters in Closely Watched Trains are comic caricatures who sustain the tone of wry, earthy humor. Stationmaster Lansky is ambitious but inept, a middle-aged, portly, balding prig who abuses his wife (and is in turn abused by her), keeps pigeons, and shouts his frustrations into the heating vent in his station. Mrs. Lanska is a heavyset housewife, beyond her middle years, who is both shocked and sympathetic when Milos comes to her for advice about women. The train dispatcher, Hubicka, is a flyspecked Lothario whose nonchalance is somehow irresistible to women. His prowess evokes jealousy in the stationmaster and awe in young Milos, who envies his ease with women.

The women in this novel seem underdeveloped and serve primarily as foils for the protagonist. Milos’ mother and Mrs. Lanska merge as nondescript maternal figures—sources of comfort and consolation for the protagonist rather than self-motivated characters. Masha is young and sweet, with shiny cheeks, strong arms, and healthy instincts. The equestrian, Countess Kinska, is merely the object of Hubicka’s erotic daydreams, and even the well-endowed Viktoria Freie seems little more than a projection of male fantasies.

The other minor figures are stock characters. Milos’ father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are all allergic to work, content to “stroll their way through life.” They serve perhaps as humorous allusions to the Czech willingness to enjoy life without strenuous exertion. Traffic chief Slusny and Councillor Zednicek are recognizable as Nazi collaborators, and the Nazis themselves are uniformly villains, though Hrabal does show some sympathy for the bald train guard whom Milos shoots at the end of the story.


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Hrabal, Bohumil. “Too Loud a Solitude,” in Cross Currents. V (1986), pp. 279-332.

Skvorecky, Josef. “American Motifs in the Work of Bohumil Hrabal,” in Cross Currents. I (1982), pp. 207-218.

Skvorecky, Josef. Jiri Menzel and the History of the “Closely Watched Trains,” 1982.

Souckova, Milada. A Literary Satellite, 1970.




Critical Essays