Saturday, January 28, 2006

All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

 (Book Review)

We are of the generation that consumes more movies than books, and “All Quiet On the Western Front” is an example of a movie that is perhaps more famous than, and threatens to eclipse, the book.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s worth watching. In this day when there are a lot of pro-war movies masquerading as anti-war movies, it’s good to be reminded of what a true anti-war movie looks like. “Saving Private Ryan” may have been upfront about showing the horrors of war, but throughout the movie is also full of patriotism and American flags waving in the background to the swell of dramatic music. The message is war may be terrible, but its still a necessary struggle fought by heroic men for a noble cause.

Compare that to the speech Paul gives in “All Quiet in the Western Front” when he confronts his old patriotic teacher:

I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it's beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don't you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country, and what good is it?
(You can read the text of the whole speech on-line here)

Picture a big budget Hollywood movie these days including that scene. They just don’t make movies like this anymore.

But if you have already seen the movie, why read the book? Well, for one thing, it’s a very short book. You can probably read it in a few days, a week easily, and then you’ll have another classic of Western literature under your belt.

But more importantly the book lets you get inside the minds of the characters in a way a movie can’t. In a movie you just watch people run around the screen. In the book you can actually share their thoughts and see what they are thinking.

I think we’ve all seen some sort of movie about a War veteran having trouble adjusting to civilian life before. I never really understood that before. Sure the war was terrible, but wouldn’t they cherish normal life all the more for having been through that experience and survived?

In reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” I got the sense for the first time of how these men would never be able to go back to civilian life, and I understood with new clarity the meaning of the phrase, “the lost generation.”

There’s a passage in which they just come back from the trench warfare at the front, and realize a play is going to be put on for the soldiers, and they ask each other, “Is it possible these kind of things still exist?” Or the passage when Paul is on leave back home, and can’t stand the company of any of his old teachers, also illustrates the point. Or there is Paul’s thoughts lying on the bed in the hospital, when he wonders what could thousands of years of Western Civilization have been if they could not have prevented this massacre.

But I’m not doing justice to any of this by ripping it out of context. You need to read the book to get the real sense of how lost these men became.

There are, as you would expect in a war novel, lots of battle scenes. Some of this gets repetitive, other times it is predictable. Maybe the clichés of the modern “War movie/ novel” were not yet established when Remarque wrote this, but they are now. I trust I won’t be giving much away if I tell you just about everyone dies, and the “best friend” character dies at the very end in a particularly senseless way.

Not all of this is pleasant reading, and often its very depressing. But I guess you don’t pick up a book like this for pleasure reading.

The most depressing thing about it all is how little we as a society seemed to have learned from the book and the war that inspired it. If the world had learned from World War I, then the book would have at least some hopefulness to it. But now, if you look at all the patriotism on display, it’s 1914 all over again.

Link of the Day
One of the frequent complaints about foreign residents in Japan is the way women are treated. A friend of mine once said, "I don't understand why Japanese people don't respect their own women."
The Japan Times ran an article on how Women were treated at the recent world exposition, which indicates it's still a problem (You're have to scroll down a bit to get it, but you can find it at this link under the heading: Sleazy snappers just tip of a volcano, say readers).

Also, stop by Rob's blog, and congragulate him on his recent baptism.

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