In 1998, I came home to find my mother, at that time very ill, turning around from a white cardboard shoebox—the box she stuffed our family photos into—with a felt pen in her hand. The sun was behind her, and her turban looked jaunty, terrifying. She had written her initials on the box, and below them:
1941 — ?
It does not matter how close we get to that question mark; it is still unthinkable. The question mark remains a question mark until we have passed that date and gone into the zone of unthinkability ourselves. We cannot imagine the date of our demise. Our minds balk. On the one hand, it’s too grim. And on the other, we tempt fate if we count on a certain period as rightfully ours, when the outrageous end can come out of a clear blue sky like a fridge, a bomb, a car crash. Or a rare cancer.
It is the terror of imagining the date of our death, a thought that goes against all our human hardwiring, that is the propulsive power of Heinrich Böll’s 1949 novel The Train Was on Time. The novel incarnates and then inhabits this taboo space, which makes the work function—once you’ve swallowed it—like an inoculation against despair.
It’s autumn 1943. A young German soldier, Andreas, is boarding a train to the Eastern Front. On the platform he thinks of throwing himself under its wheels, but also of desertion, to save his skin. “I don’t want to die,” he says to his friend the pastor, “that’s what’s so horrible—that I don’t want to die.” From the first page, we’re in a world where the fascist state has reversed our natural will to live; it requires instead a will to die. Life has been so debased by the glorification of death in war that it’s shameful to want to keep living. As the train pulls out, Andreas panics, calling to his friend, the pastor, “I don’t want to die, but the terrible thing is that I’m going to die … soon!”
It’s not so much the train that sets the action in motion but the word soon, because:
Now and again what appears to be a casually spoken word will suddenly acquire a cabalistic significance. It becomes charged and strangely swift, races ahead of the speaker, is destined to throw open a chamber in the uncertain confines of the future and to return to him with the deadly accuracy of a boomerang. Out of the small talk of unreflecting speech … it falls back on the speaker like a leaden wave, and he becomes aware of the force, both frightening and intoxicating, of the workings of fate.
This is what happens when you say something you didn’t know you were going to—and suddenly know it’s true. Words tossed off in pain or love or as a joke throw open a trapdoor to the subconscious, that place where we hide things from ourselves, including our own, intuited, deadline. Writers write out of what we know and what we don’t. We use words to jimmy open first ourselves and then the world. We may think we are working to separate the surface from what is going on underneath, to “show workings,” as my benighted math teacher used to say. But the truth is we don’t know what we’ll find; we are working a mine of premonitions. If, as Beethoven had it, character is fate, to get a sudden insight into your self may then be to have a presentiment of what fate has in store for you. Like this:
To lovers and soldiers, to men marked for death and to those filled with the cosmic force of life, this power is sometimes given, without warning; a sudden revelation is conferred on them, a bounty and a burden … and the word sinks, sinks down inside them.
Andreas is groping in the dark of his unconscious mind for the deadline beyond which he cannot imagine himself. He is going toward the —?. We ride the train with him station by station toward the end, which becomes more and more certain: how many months, days, weeks does he have? It depends on where his imagination stops. He counts down the hours between each intuited deadline and now and—strangely—doesn’t know what to do with them. Andreas is shocked that he eats with such relish, cross that he kills time playing cards and wastes it sleeping. Life, apparently, will take what it needs to keep going. Turns out that it’s a value in itself, not a sack to fill with jewels, experiences. No cause, however just or glorious, however many patriotic songs are sung to it, can justify throwing it away. It is precious beyond belief.
We need to imagine Böll, at thirty, writing this novel in a half-destroyed house in his hometown of Cologne. It is Stunde Null—Zero Hour—and the world is in ruins. One baby, born during the war, has died; Böll lives with his wife and two infant sons. Born in 1917, during the previous war, his generation was fodder for the next. Böll’s family was pacifist and Catholic; at school he was one of very few who refused to join the Hitler Youth at school. Conscripted into Hitler’s infantry as a young man, he served in Poland, France, Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union and was wounded four times. At the end of the war he deserted, hiding out with his wife for a time before rejoining as the war was ending so as not to be killed by his own side. The Americans, he said, “liberated” him when they took him prisoner.
The Train Was on Time, Böll’s first published novel, was the beginning of a life in which for the next forty years he spoke out against bureaucratic idiocy, injustice, administrative and media terror, and the German habit of subservience to authority, which he identified as the root of totalitarianism there. Böll became the great, revered everyman of German letters, the conscience of a nation that had recently suppressed its own. He was the president of PEN International, and as wildly popular in the Eastern Bloc as he was in the West. In 1972, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1979, he politely refused a medal from the West German Government, saying: “Medals don’t suit me. I’m not that kind of guy.”
It is seventy years since this novel was published, but today it feels like we’re coming into that station. This is possibly because as one gets closer to being past, the past feels closer. Though I don’t think it’s just me: today fascism is on the rise, totalitarian tyrants rule billions of people, men and women are being sent to wars of just and unjust causes, causes that are, all of them, utterly irrelevant when a person faces their own question mark, their own ride to Stryy. Böll’s novel blows a stent in the human heart, and shows us the terror there. It feels more necessary than ever.
Read Heinrich Böll’s Art of Fiction interview.
Anna Funder is one of Australia’s most acclaimed and awarded writers. Her nonfiction work Stasiland, hailed as “a masterpiece,” was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize. Her novel All That I Am won the Miles Franklin and many other prizes. Both books have been published in more than twenty-four countries.
From Anna Funder’s introduction to The Train Was on Time, by Heinrich Böll, published by Viking in the United Kingdom.