On the cover of my All Quiet on the Western Front is printed “the greatest war novel of all time.” In a time when it seems like every book bears on its cover either “New York Times Bestseller,” “Best-Selling Author” or “Book of the Year Award Finalist,” this one lives up to its billing. All Quiet is a masterpiece, a page-turning one-nighter, the literary Saving Private Ryan.
The story follows the war experiences of Paul Baumer, young German enlisted, and those of his friends, all of whom Remarque does a remarkable job acquainting the reader with on a personal, almost intimate level. The book becomes increasingly sobering as one by one Paul’s friends get snuffed out, or, even worse, die slow and painful deaths. The reader will laugh as Paul and Co. do battle with the ever-present rat(s) of a novel of this sort; be quietly satisfied as they settle the score with the awful Himmeltoss; cheer for them as they find a semblance of a normal life for a night with the French women; cry as a pair of boots, something as simple as quality combat boots, become a symbol of all that is lost in war; and cringe, the despair of and weep throughout at the true costs of war.
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It seems to be as close as one can get to battle without actually being in the trenches. Remarque obviously lived it all, describing in detail the horrors of trench warfare, the inhumanity of throwing fresh, new recruits literally into the fire, the utter terror of the bombing raids, the awful wails of dying men, the maddening shrieks of dying animals. Through the course of the novel, one notices a gradual change in Paul the rookie and Paul the veteran.
The turning point — perhaps one small facet of what Remarque was alluding to in his paragraph-long introduction when he notes, “It (the book) will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” — happens as Paul encounters a French soldier, killing him with, as I remember it, a knife. For a time Paul is deeply shocked by the horror of what he has done, seeing this man not as the enemy, but as a fellow human being, a husband, and vowing to write to his wife one day.
And then it fades, as Paul becomes one of the many “destroyed” ones. That Paul has become isolated, cut off from the rest of humanity, haunted by his wartime experiences, is no better demonstrated than when Paul says (upon returning home on a short leave):
“I prefer to be alone so that no one troubles me…Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here.
They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing, just to sit quietly like this. They understand, of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with words, only with words, yes, that is it – they feel it, but always with only half of themselves.
When I see them here, in their rooms, in their offices, about their occupations, I feel an irresistible attraction in it, I would like to be here too and forget the war; but also it repels me, it is so narrow, how can that fill a man’s life, he ought to smash it to bits; how can they do it, while out at the front the splinters are whining over the shell-holes, the wounded are carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades crouch in the trenches. They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise.”
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