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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

When I was at school, our English reader used to feature some very interesting pieces; some of them used to be two pager snippets of larger novels. These stories - meant for an extremely drab educational purposes - ranged from an excerpt about a young boy nearing suffocation in a box in which he was kidnapped, to a dying rhino amidst a group of poachers, and a marvellous hidden national treasure which, in the middle of being robbed, set off the alarm by way of tinkling bells. I eventually read the complete works, having borrowed them from an English teacher who used to reside in the apartment below ours. One piece of work though, had been haunting me ever since I had read it way back in the year 2002. The story was titled 'The Boots of Kemmerich' and I can most vividly recall the pain in the words. Ever since then, I had been looking out for All Quiet on the Western Front, and it wasn't until 14 years later, that I got round to read it. And it feels just the same. 

This is the First World War, and like most WWI stories that we read in this age, it is heart-wrenching. While wars and death in wars all over are brutal, somehow, stories on this war seem so much more raw and basal. Having read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which speaks from the English side of the story, its quite clear that neither side - the English or the Germans - were having a very good time of it. What is common, is the extreme psychological isolation of the soldiers on both sides. They have seen, smelt and done things that are impossible to imagine. They have endured pain like no other, and their nerves have been so frayed that it would take no more than a nudge to take them spiralling down to the abyss of the mind, and ultimately, un-resisted death. And to have that happen to young boys who had just begun to know life... it makes one wonder about the privilege available to others. 

All Quiet on the Western Front is a graphic narration, seen from the eyes of a barely-adult young soldier out in the front. He is surrounded by his classmates from school, all of whom got goaded into the war by their thoughtless, self-serving schoolmaster. They survive from day to day, foraging, sharing lewd jokes, looking after each other and flitting between shell-hole to shell-hole when under fire. Not many among them fully understand the war and are painfully, still unsure whether they are doing the right thing; patriotism is not very high on their list of morals, and when they - being Germans -  encounter a French in person, they feel no animosity. Yet they kill, and somehow stay alive, but only in the body. And then there is the family back home, which has barely any idea of the soul which keeps coming back to visit them now and then. Remarque brings out the psychological agony and the physical horrors of war in a simple, yet quite verbose entry. At times, one is bound to feel if an eighteen-year old lad, having seen far more than he should have, would also be able to articulate the same to himself and make some sense of it - which is perhaps the most damaging bruise that war can leave on an unformed soul. Either way, the book seems like a frank description of war, and it doesn't really matter how we come to know of its ills.

Several characters populate the book, and we get to know them through the eyes of the narrator. Pitifully, they are mostly youngsters, which makes for a difficult reading, especially the fresh batch of recruits that keep replacing the dead and the wounded. Their utter lack of experience and an an equivalent abundance of naivety creates a disturbing aspect. Besides, there is also the torture of reading about helpless animals in the war; this is only marginally worse than the whole lot of the young boys being butchered. There are a couple of old hands, most notably Katcinzsky, who, with his almost paternal handling of the young boys, becomes pretty much the cushion to fall back on. But, as one advances through the pages, it becomes quite clear that everybody, without exception, has gone beyond the realm of help.

But then we all know what a war is. Every time it has happened, wherever it may be, wars have been the fodder for painful story-telling the world over. That never deadens the dread; such is the power of a conflict of such magnitudes. Remarque only intensifies the pain, when he reads aloud his impression of war through the slow;y dimming eyes of a boy, who had died the minute he steps into the battlefield. All Quiet on the Western Front is a reminder to us, most of whom may not have to be out there at the line ever at all, that a war is not just a casualty of lives and property; it kills much more than that; It takes away generations on both sides, leaves a gash that never heals and solves very little and temporarily. 


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