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Sunday, 19 June 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 10

After a weekend away and beginning the first of the books that I need to read for my second year of uni, I feel sufficiently refreshed and will get back to reading this next chapter with more enthusiasm, shall we say.
So the chapter starts with the main group deployed to an evacuated village, where they have to defend the supply dump, which hasn't been emptied yet. So what's the first thing that they do upon finding a place suitable as a dugout? Loot the place, of course. To be fair, it's probably what I would do too, although they sound as if they're looting much more practical things than I would pick up (you're allowed three guesses as to what, but I sincerely doubt you'll need three). They end up with decent bedding and food (including a couple of piglets, which were unfortunately quick to be slaughtered), so that's good at least. What's not good is that when they use someone's kitchen to cook all this, the opposing side spots the smoke and starts to shell them. They carry on cooking. Wow. I'm not quite sure whether I'm impressed at their ability to keep calm under pressure or absolutely flabbergasted at their stubbornness. They all manage to get to the dugout, food in hand, so I suppose it's okay. Not sure I wanted that detail about their repeated need to empty their bowels during the night, but I'm kind of used to it now. In any case, they live like kings (considering the circumstances) until they're ordered to withdraw.
A few days later they're sent to oversee the evacuation of a village. They think that they won't be bombed at that moment, seeing as the French are unlikely to bomb a village full of their countrymen, but they'd be wrong. Our narrator and Kropp end up hurtling themselves over a hedge into a pond in order to find shelter. They eventually find a medic cart, where both of them turn out to be wounded, Kropp potentially seriously so. All in all a pretty disastrous deployment.
So it turns out that they aren't seriously wounded, just wounded enough to be sent back home. The paragraph is mainly dedicated to the surgeon poking about in our narrator's wound.
So they're waiting for the train to pick them up and take them home. It's raining and the station has no roof, so they're pretty miserable, for good reason. By the time they actually get on the train, our narrator has an odd moment of inability to face home life again when he hesitates to get the sheets dirty on the hospital train beds. A bit of an odd moment, but it's not too out of place.
Later on, during the night, our narrator takes a tumble when he gets out of bed to try find the toilet. Things just haven't gone right since they left that deployment at the beginning of the chapter. Things could be a lot worse though. We're then treated to how they deal with bladder and bowel issues without leaving their beds. Lovely. That and there's an odd bit at the end of the paragraph where it's mentioned that the train stops to drop off the dead. Not sure why, but it's there nonetheless.
The next paragraph has Kropp get feverish, so our narrator fakes a fever in order to be taken off the train at the same stop with him. A rather sweet sentiment really.
They're being treated at a Catholic infirmary, where the care is apparently very good, but none of them can get to sleep because the sisters insist on praying for their salvation very loudly with the door open specifically so that they can benefit from the prayers. I can see that getting very taxing very quickly. The soldiers agree with me and force the sisters to close the door. Hooray for sickness-based obstinacy.
The hospital inspector tries to tell them off for their chosen method of making the sisters close the door (bottle throwing in this instance), but one of the other patients takes the blame for it, seeing as he sustained a head wound meaning that they think he's more likely to not be in his right mind. Hooray for easily flouted escape clauses too.
Considering that Catholic infirmaries are supposed to be very good conditions, a nurse letting a man haemorrhage because she couldn't be bothered to answer their ringing after she's had a bad night doesn't sound all that good a condition to be in really.
There's a little bit of info about the nurses, most of which seem to be firm and experienced, but cheerless. We also hear about the man who was haemorrhaging last paragraph. He's been taken to the Dead Man's Room. I'm sure that nun/nurse will be getting a stern talking to regarding that.
Another depressing paragraph where the guy with the head injury is taken to the Dead Man's Room.
We hear about a doctor who's experimenting on people with flat feet, to see if he can get them to be normal. Considering that he's been trying since the start of the war, it doesn't seem to be working.
Kropp's had to have his leg amputated at the upper thigh. His immediate reaction is to shoot himself the first chance he gets, which is a bit alarming really. We're introduced to a new patient, a blinded musician who tries to kill himself by stabbing himself in the chest with a fork (inventive, but not very successful). So far, so very depressing. But the guy with the head wound is back from the Dead Man's Room, which is nice.
Our narrator is eventually given a pair of crutches to use, which he tends to use out in the corridor, for Kropp's sake I would imagine. He ends up exploring the hospital, seeing just how many places humans can be wounded. It's all rather grisly, so I think I'll leave it at that.
We're introduced to another patient, Lewandowski, whose wife comes to visit after saving and scrimping together enough money for the train journey down there. They haven't seen each other for two years, so the other patients, our narrator and Kropp included band together and cover up what I assume is the noise of Lewandowski and his wife having sex. Not bad really.
The final paragraph basically sums up how they've both recovered. Our narrator finishes physiotherapy and gets some injury leave, which is apparently even worse than the normal leave he had earlier. Kropp's stump has pretty much healed up completely, he's being fitted for an artificial leg and he seems a bit less inclined to killing himself. But he's still being left alone, which I don't think is a good sign.

After last chapter, I wasn't really expecting much. While this chapter was still a bit jumpy regarding time and plot, but it all meshed together better than it did last time. Much nicer to read.

Signing off,

Thursday, 16 June 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 9

Hey guys, back again. On to chapter 9 now. I'll admit, at the moment reading this doesn't feel like an especially good prospect; this is nothing to do with the writing, it's just that the trend of the chapters recently has been for a soul-crushingly depressing atmosphere which I could do without. But I haven't read a chapter in a while and I do want to know what happens to him, so on I go.
So we are finally reunited with the rest of the guys, after finding out that they're now a flying division: a division that travels to wherever the fighting is worst/heaviest. Wonderful news. Although Kropp seems to have heard an entirely different rumour, that they're being sent to Russia, where the fighting is pretty much over. Personally? My money is on the flying division bit and Russia being a seriously unlikely prospect.
I almost thought for a minute I'd have to take that last sentence back. They all get new gear and uniforms etc, and go through drill practice almost obsessively, making our narrator wonder why they'd need all this for Russia. Turns out that the Kaiser is coming to inspect them instead. It all seems rather anti-climactic in the end, which is understandable considering that the Kaiser at the time was far from physically imposing. From talking about the Kaiser, they begin to ponder the question of whether the war would have started if the Kaiser had said no to it. Followed by a discussion of the differences between a nation and a homeland, which would be more interesting if it weren't so brief and more than just a place for "we don't need to be here" to be brought up. After all that they have to go get their old gear back again.
There's an odd scene next where they see the aftermath of a bombing raid on the way back to the front. Pretty much the entire scene is looking at the carnage, specifically at how the bodies are blown out of their clothes, and hoping they don't end up the same way. I don't see why it's there. It's probably there to show how brutal the war is, but then Remarque has already demonstrated that in much better and subtler ways, so this just seems to come out of nowhere.
The next scene is our narrator volunteering himself for a patrol to see how many of the enemy positions are manned. This is an interesting one, as there doesn't seem to be much danger around him (relatively speaking), but he's having what looks to be a pretty bad panic attack. I'm surprised just how much he could, in a sense, get used to the situation surrounding his two or so weeks away. His panic only subsides when he hears his friends' voices back in the trenches, which is another interesting point. Just how far does camaraderie go until it becomes an emotional crutch? Is that a healthy state of mind, even if it's helpful in situations like that?
So he continues forward, trying to make contact with the rest of the patrol, but gets lost. This isn't going particularly successfully, in all honesty. He ends up having to play dead in No Man's Land while a French offensive is going on. So all in all a spectacularly bad way to begin his work back on the front line, all things considered.
And he's still stuck out there at this point in the narrative, with enemy gunfire too low to the ground for him to get back to his own trenches and a dying man in there with him. It's a horrible scene to read, simply because he's waiting for the Germans to start a counter-attack so that he can go back to see his mates, but he realises that his mates probably think he's already died.
That man stuck in the shell crater with him is taking longer to die than I imagined. I'm assuming that this guy is a French soldier, which is why I'm kinda confused as to why our narrator is trying to help heal his wounds. I mean, I can understand sympathising with the people on the other side and such, but considering that this is a battlefield, it seemed an odd place for him to suddenly develop a desire to help his fellow man.
The soldier finally dies. Somehow it's both affecting and nauseating at the same time: you pity the man and all the wasted years he has, but then Bäumer imagining all these aspects of the dead man's life, like a wife he writes to, just seems too close somehow. Bäumer does seem to be going quite mad though.
Definitely not a healthy mindset now. He's utterly obsessed with the family of the man he's just killed, going through the corpse's wallet so that he'll know who he's killed. It's more scary than sad now, which I'm not sure was the intention, to be honest.
He now makes it back to the trench, where he's welcomed back with a fair amount of relief. Considering how scarily obsessive he was about the guy he killed as well, he forgets him pretty quickly after the others assure him that everything's okay. Which is almost as creepy as the obsession in the first place.

I'm not sure what I think of this chapter. It didn't seem to gel quite as well as the others, if I'm honest. Still, not bad overall.

Signing off,

Monday, 13 June 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 8

Hey guys, I'm back again after a long break. I would say that it was spent settling back in at home, having moved back after uni finished, but that would be a lie. I've been procrastinating like nobody's business, if I'm being totally honest. During that procrastination, I was thinking a little about this blog and I've decided that All Quiet on the Western Front will be the last book I review chapter by chapter; much as I've found the form interesting at times and much as I like looking at the book in-depth, reviewing chapter by chapter is beginning to grate now. Normally I get through quite a few books a year (many of them re-reads, which I aim to change), but this form of reviewing feels deliberately slowed-down; I mean, we're halfway through the year and I'm still on my third book. At six books a year, I probably won't get through my current TBR list for three-four years, so if I end up adding to it (which is almost inevitable really) then it'll never really stop. So after All Quiet on the Western Front, I'm just going to review books as a whole; I will try to make those reviews as detailed as possible though. So anyway, for those who have forgotten where I left off (myself included), Bäumer had gone back home on leave and thoroughly regretted it. 
The chapter starts with Bäumer during training after his leave has finished, and you can definitely notice a change in his behaviour now. Before now there's been a big focus on people and the effect of war and the military on him and his behaviour, but now there's a sudden shift to focusing on nature. It's not necessarily a bad thing though, as it means there are sections like this where the detail is simply wonderful:
"Best of all are the woodlands, with the birch trees at the edges. They are constantly changing colour. The trunks may be shining and dazzlingly white, with the pastel green of their leaves waving between them, silky and airy; and then in the next moment it all changes to an opalescent blue, with silver coming in from the edges and dabbing the green away; but then all at once it can deepen to almost black at one point, when a cloud crosses the sun." 
 That's probably the loveliest image I'm going to get from this book, and while it is nice to get sections like these, the sudden switch does seem a little odd. In any case, in conjunction with the fascination with nature, he expresses a wish to not really get closer than necessary to anyone at the training camp. He then mentions a POW camp next-door to them, containing Russian soldiers. Somehow the prisoners get across the wire fence separating the two camps and try anything to get a little more to eat, considering that they only get fed enough to not starve; it's a pitiful image, with all these men going through the rubbish bins and trading off everything of value that they have just to eat.
He ends up doing guard duty at the fence and ends up musing that if the war were ended that day, the Russian prisoners on the other side of the fence would or could in all likelihood be men that he would befriend. I don't know, that idea that governments control our lives in ways like that is kinda scary. In the end, we don't have much say in what they do or don't do, have we? In any case, he manages to speak to a few of them, including a violinist who used to play in the Berlin orchestra. A prime example of who we should and shouldn't like during war, I suppose.
The last Sunday before he goes back to the front, Bäumer is visited by his father and sister. They end up talking about his mother's illness. The doctors say that she's got cancer, but they hope that she'll get better by having an operation to remove the tumour. That is if the family can actually afford it, which is highly doubtful. Bäumer doesn't seem to catch a break, does he?

So that's the end of chapter 8 and it's thoroughly depressing. We seem to be on a downward spiral of bleakness now.

Signing off,

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 7

Finally back after my Expo weekend and subsequent recovery period. You wouldn't think two days at a convention would take it out of you so much. In any case, I'm mostly back to normal, just trying to sort out my sleeping pattern now, and now ready to continue my reviews. Last chapter seemed to be the "kill-'em-all" chapter and the halfway point. 
So after being almost totally obliterated, the company is taken far behind the lines so that it can get some more recruits in there and thus actually qualify as a company. Himmelstoss made it out alive, which is a surprise. He's actually nice now, which is an even bigger surprise. A side effect of him being nice is that our main group (apart from Haie, who's dying in some army hospital right about now) is getting well-fed and rested. It seems that while they're behind the front line, they retreat into jokey personas so that they don't have to deal with all the horrors of the front. Makes sense that they can't really dwell on that sort of stuff out there, otherwise they're at risk of dying, but I can imagine that come peace-time, it's all going to come out and it will not be pretty. 
This next paragraph seems to be pretty much a longer, more poetic version of what I discussed just now. I don't see much point re-hashing that right now, so I'll move along. 
There's an odd scene next where the guys find a poster of a pretty girl that pretty much transfixes them. Granted, I can understand them being fascinated by her picture, seeing as it's been a while since they've seen any women. I can understand that. But preening themselves for a poster seems a little bit on the eerie side; it seems like the poster is taking on too much significance somehow, like if a guy were to get in his finest tux so that he can ogle a page 3 girl. I don't know, it just doesn't sit right somehow. 
The next scene sees them organise a rendezvous with some French girls in exchange for food. I suddenly get the feeling that this may well be the sex/women oriented chapter. So they wait until dark to swim across, where the girls are greeted with the sight of 3 men, all naked as the day they were born except for boots. They laugh, obviously (who wouldn't?). The girls eat and talk to them in French, which they don't understand. My understanding of French has declined somewhat over the years, but I can say that it's less friendly and more pitying than they seem to think. The sex (or what little the reader is shown of it) is more melancholy than anything, more an escape from the war than anything else. It's rather sad that an act that can hold so much meaning for the people involved can also degenerate to an escape route. I mean, it doesn't hold any meaning that way; you forget for a short while, but in the end it all fades away again. 
They eventually go back to camp, where they pass Tjaden racing along in the nude to see if he can get in on the fun. An amusing image, but not quite enough here. 
The next morning,umer is told that he's being given leave for two weeks, and that he doesn't have to report back to the front afterwards; instead he'll be at a camp in the moors for training. He spends his last day with his friends in the canteen, drinking beer and smoking. What do you reckon the likelihood is that by the time he gets back from this training course thing, there will have been a load of them killed off? 
We skip a great deal of the travelling until he gets close to his home town. It does sound very pretty, with rolling fields and the like. Maybe a bit too idyllic, but it works in the circumstances. In any case, Bäumer can't seem to convince himself that he's actually home, and it's made pretty awkward by his mother asking whether it's bad at the front. That and his mother may have cancer. Things just keep getting better, huh? 
He goes to the district's military HQ to report and meets with a thoroughly unpleasant major on the way back. Not quite sure why this scene is here, but oh well. In any case, he ditches the uniform as quickly as he can once he gets back home again. 
He ends up going to the local pub with his father, and oh dear. It really couldn't get much more awkward. While his mother is just asking what the conditions are like so that she can assuage her doubts, his father wants to know the nitty gritty. Or at least he thinks he does, going under the assumption that everything's a grand old lark out there. It's a similar situation with his teachers, who think that winning the war will just be a simple matter of winning in a certain area of the battlefield. Frankly, it's irritating, but he can't really tell them that they're talking rubbish because they're being so supportive. 
There's a section where Bäumer talks about how he wishes he could connect with the people in his home town still or that they just stop talking and just appreciate what they've got for once. It's quite sad but really frustrating at the same time, just thinking about the sheer idiocy that the human race displays sometimes. 
Seems he can't even connect to the person he used to be anymore either. There's a scene where he just sits in his old room, trying to recapture the youthful enthusiasm he had before he joined the war. He tries reading through all his books, to try and convince himself that he'll be okay once the war is over, but nothing reaches him; the books that he spent so much time collecting mean absolutely nothing to him. I don't know why, but I think that's got to be the scariest thing of all the stuff that has happened in this chapter. The idea that you could come back from somewhere and not even recognise what inspired or defined your younger self is a horrific prospect, for me anyway. 
He ends up visiting an old friend, Mittelstaedt, who was presumably injured enough to be sent back home and put in charge of the home guard. Which their old teacher, Kantorek, is part of. The revenge on Kantorek is pretty good too, giving him a hopelessly mismatched and ill-fitting uniform amongst other things. I would feel sorry for this guy, but he has effectively killed a large chunk of his old students, so I think he rather deserves it. Plus it's a great image. 
Back at home it's getting progressively more awkward, as his mother is getting more depressed the closer he gets to going back to war. 
Almost as awkward as visiting Kemmerich's mother. You know, the guy who died in chapter 2? Yeah, that was never going to go well. Quite why she wanted to know how he died, I have no idea. I mean, if I had a child and s/he died, I'd want to know as little as possible simply for my peace of mind. But maybe that's just me. Should the circumstance ever come up, I may well act like Kemmerich's mother too, against my better judgement. Who knows? 
The final scene this chapter is him saying goodbye to his mother. It's a nightmare, just one of those things that cannot go well, like visiting Kemmerich's mother. To cut a long scene short, he tries to dumb down the dangers of the front again, all the while having a surprisingly flowery inner monologue. 

After all that, you can understand why he would wish he'd never come home on leave. Yeah, overall a pretty depressing experience, with a few comedic moments which don't quite alleviate the gloom as well as one would hope. 

Signing off,