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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

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Hrabal’s story takes place during World War II in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, where a young man named Milos struggles with insecurity, isolation, justice, and his humanity. As he serves at a train station and observes cars full of people, products, and soldiers daily, Milos evaluates his worth, his role in society, and the reality of war.

For most of the book, Milos is obsessed with gaining the affections of women. Longing for intimacy and acceptance by a woman, Milos becomes infatuated with a young lady he meets at work.

I thought of Masha, and of how we met for the first time, when I was still with the track superintendent. He gave us two buckets of red paint and told us to paint the fence round the entire state workshops. Masha began by the railway track, just as I did. We stood facing each other with the tall wire fence between us, at our feet we each had a bucket of cinnabar paint, we each had a brush, and we stippled away with our brushes opposite each other and painted that fence, she from her side and I from mine.

However, Milos struggles with self-confidence in every area, especially regarding relationships. Known to be lazy, he and his family were disregarded and disrespected by townspeople where he grew up. So, he feels more comfortable alone and allows others to dictate his actions.

I, who had always been accustomed to solitude, felt the whole world close in on me as soon as we entered the town. The only times I’ve been able to breathe freely, ever since, were when I was able to get out of it. . . . If anyone spoke to me I blushed, because I felt uncomfortably aware that there was something about me that disturbed and upset everybody.

As an immature, child-like young man, Milos tends to observe life and society rather than entering into the reality of day-to-day interactions and relationships.

I always had a horror of beautiful people, I’ve never been able to talk coherently to them, I always sweated and stammered, I had such an admiration for beauty, and was so dazzled by it, that I never could look a handsome person in the face!

Milos does begin to awaken in his consciousness of war as the novel unfolds. At one point, he discovers a downed German airplane.

I realized that this glove was’nt on its own there, but had a human hand inside it, and that this human hand wasn’t alone, but was attached to an arm, and the arm to a human body which lay somewhere under the wreckage.

When Milos meets Hubricka, the dispatcher of the rail station, he admires how strong and confident Hubricka is with work and women.

. . . I grasped that for women our dispatcher had an assured enchantment.

Dispatcher Hubricka had always been my ideal, even back in Dobrovice where he taught me, when with one hand he could establish a connection with one station, and with the other hand telegraph a lading list to another station… …the only one who has never afraid of anything was Dispatcher Hubicka . . . !

In a unique, dangerous decision to make a difference, Milos chooses to follow his idol Hubricka in attacking a train car full of Nazis. Once engaged in fighting with the German soldiers, Milos is mortally wounded. As he begins to die slowly, he whispers,“You should have stayed at home,” into the ears of a soldier he killed. Milos finally finds his strength and manhood before he dies.