In all honesty, this is a book that I probably would not have read, had my brother not bought it for me for Christmas. But, as I have found recently, sometimes the most enjoyable books are the ones that would not think of buying for yourself, but when someone else does, you’re sure glad that they did!
The title of this book has passed into everday usage. In 1930, the film adaption of the book won an Oscar for Best Picture. Originally published in 1929, it came at a time where the patriotism of the Great War was a distant memory, and hindsight could be applied. Never the less, it was still recent enough to recall the conditions of the time. The author himself was wouded serving in the German Army on the Western Front, and it would be naive to think that his experiences did not shape the tone of the novel.
We follow the life of Paul Baumer, a young German who along with the rest of his class volunteers to fight shortly after the start of the First World War. Along with his friends he is sent to the Western Front, where they experience frequent battles, and endure dangerous and squalid living conditions. This is not a story of heroism or bravey, but of the monotony of war, and its many costs.
First-person fiction is a brave choice for any writer to pursue – I talk from experience here. While third person historical fiction calls for a lot of research, first person is a whole different ball game. We do not rely on a narrator to buffer between the story and the reader; the thoughts, mannerisms and language of the primary character have to be spot on, or the whole plot founders. It is a brave choice, and Remarque pulls it off here with aplomb.
This is a very useful book for trying to get to grips with the human experience of the soldier on the Western Front. It also adds another dimension to our understanding: we hear a lot about Tommy, but what about Fritz? From a psychological and sociological point of view, it is also fascinating to observe the attitudes towards the war, and the loyalties that develop in the crucible of front-line service. Reading this book made me think, which can never be a bad thing,
But what really strikes me the most about All Quiet On The Western Front, is that if you were to change the German names, the German food and other cultural references, these could be any solders, anywhere. If their names were Bill, Tom and Fred and they were to eat Bully Beef instead of Sauerkraut, they could quite easily be British. And I think that is the salient point about this classic book – that the fortunes of the average soldier are almost always the same, and that despite the attempts of Propaganda, very often the men facing eah other in the front line have more in common than they do with their own Generals.