Publisher: Random House Vintage Classics
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Erich Maria Remarque, a World War I veteran and a Lost Generation artist, wrote his most famous novel All Quiet on the Western Front as a testament to a generation that was lost in the ravages of the Great War. Despite being capturing an event that has receded far back into history and the subject of a terrible waste of young lives, to which the world today seems to be desensitized, it is pertinent. It speaks of war and the pity of war. Much as it is a matter of shame, war will never cease to be a pertinent topic.
The novel details the story of Paul Baumer, barely out of school, who is a German soldier in the war, along with a group of his classmates. Fresh-faced and with the jingoistic narrative of war still echoing in their young minds, this group steps on to the battle field. They are soon acquainted with the realities of combat, shaken out of their senses by the continuous rain of artillery. They are forced to grow into men overnight when they see things that most grown men wouldn’t be able to imagine in their worst nightmares. Baumer begins to lose his classmates as death becomes an everyday occurrence on the front. He finds a companion in the more experienced Kat, a resourceful army veteran who befriends and helps out the inexperienced Paul.
It is a novel about the violence of war that dehumanizes and the friendships that flourish in the rubble where nothing else can live. Above all it captures the pathos that lies in the disillusionment of youth with life. At an age where their life has barely started, these boys are cut-off from the world. It is impossible for them to imagine a return back to civilian life. The horror of their situation is that despite the desperation to be free of the daily fear that war brings, they cannot imagine a life without war. They feel like old men who have seen more than most do in a life time. All this is a result of being part of an event they don’t fully understand.
Remarque’s writing is simple but not pedestrian. He describes the horrors of war with a detachment and his prose has a touch of the everyday. It is this sense of the routine that enhances the horror of what he describes. The scenes in the trenches and the hospitals are stark and graphic. Remarque leaves the rhetoric of war with no place to hide. The few places where the narrative departs from the war it veers towards the only thing that these soldiers have for company around them- nature. The description of nature, beautiful and haunting, forms a relief to the hell of the trenches overhung with the gloom of death.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic. Beautifully translated, it is the product of a writer who is extremely skillful and whose content comes from experience rather than imagination. It is an extremely sensitive work that dismantles the belligerence of the ideology of war without taking a hammer to it.