Say what you like about war, what with its incalculable death and suffering, yet it has been a goldmine of inspiration for all sorts of art and entertainment. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque draws on his own World War I experiences to paint a sobering portrait of life (and death) for German soldiers on the front lines. The story follows a young man named Paul, who, along with his schoolmates, enlisted to fight after much insistence from their teacher. In the trenches the boys grow up fast. Their innocence evaporates as they witness comrades being shot to pieces and blown up. Their sensitivity is seared, until their main concern upon watching a friend rot away from his wounds in an army hospital is which of them will inherit his boots when he dies. One by one soldiers fall, leaving the rest to adapt and survive, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally. The German army declines in number and quality, slowly but clearly heading for defeat. For Paul and his remaining friends, it is not only the war that has become a dead-end, but also life itself. They see no place for themselves in the world anymore; they are too young to have wives or businesses to return to, and now hope of normal life has passed them by. No one at home understands what they are going through, and the boys feel detached from the society to which they once belonged.
The realism and detail make this book so impacting. There are no superheroes or arch-villains—just people. More than the battles, the little, day-to-day things stand out; we see the young men chasing women, playing practical jokes, going to the toilet in a warzone, enjoying precious moments of pleasure and levity, facing the constant threat of death, and all the while sparing the folks at home the ugly truth. This is not exactly the type of plot line upon which you would base a WWI video game; I have several rejection letters from game developers to prove it.
I don’t like books that take an aggressive anti-war position; they come off as preachy, and if I want preaching I can go to church on Sundays. In fact, I do. Last weekend’s sermon was wonderful. Pastor Jacob spoke about the fiery destruction of the impenitent when Galactic Lord Velzak returns from Neptune. I’m so glad I’ve assured my place on the Heavenly Spaceship—best twenty thousand dollars I ever spent! Anyway, rather than preaching, Remarque simply presents a real-life portrayal of war. It is powerful and memorable.
If you like war books, read All Quiet on the Western Front. More than fiction, it is the story of so many lost young men. 8/10
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