“I pictured life so different.”
“We all have.”
Robert Lohkamp is one of those whom Gertrude Stein called the ‘lost generation’. Embittered by his years in the trenches, Bob has lost faith in everything: God, the political leadership, high-sounding concepts like patriotism and nationalism. All he is sure of is the friendship of those comrades who were with him in the war and had endured what he himself did. He is especially close to two friends: the silent Otto Koster and the loquacious Gottfried Lenz.
The novel opens on his thirtieth birthday in the year 1928 with Bob feeling wasted. He sees the years stretching ahead of him in the same monotony: working together in a car workshop along with Otto and Lenz; playing the piano at the International where he mingles with the prostitutes, getting drunk and spending the nights fitfully:
But it was better not to think too much about all that—when alone, at any rate; and especially at night. For every now and then things had a way of rising up suddenly out of the past and staring at one with dead eyes. It was against such times that one kept a bottle of schnapps.
Otto and Lenz who realise the melancholic mood their friend has fallen into decide to take him out for celebration. There at a restaurant, Bob meets Patricia Hollmann and his life changes. As the two fall in love and he dares to dream once again, he realises that life has still more tests in store for him.
The way I have summarized the text does little justice to Remarque’s novel which is a wonderful evocation of life in Germany between the wars. Through a host of characters – the other boarders who stay where Bob stays, the prostitutes, the taxi-drivers with their troubles and griefs, their small joys and happiness, their sorrows and despairs, their generosity and meanness – Remarque paints a vivid picture of a society collapsing around itself: there is unrest on the streets, unemployment and inflation, fist-fights break-out suddenly, families gas themselves; political leaders of various ideological hues try to enflame passions for their own rise in power…
Through just a few strokes of the pen, Remarque presents these characters before us: the poor student Georg surviving on dried bread so as to pay his fees; the prostitute Rosa who knits woollens for her child, the clerk Hasse who saves money so that his wife doesn’t have a problem, the painter Ferdinand who paints portraits of the dead, the cafe-owner Alfonso who has a weakness for choral songs, the Russian Count who has tea ready all the time, the garage-helper with his flapping ears, the inoffensive German accountant who slowly becomes convinced that Germans do not apologise, especially to Asiatics. Though these people only had supporting roles, they were real to me and I’d have been happy just reading about Bob’s interaction with them.
And really with all the drama happening around him Remarque needn’t have introduced Patricia in the narrative because for me she just didn’t work. Unlike even the bit-players who were there only for one passage or so (Rosa’s husband, Arthur; the old woman who buys the parrot so that she is not lonely any longer), Patricia didn’t seem like a flesh and blood character to me at all. Pages after pages are devoted to how she becomes friendly to all of Bob’s friends and acquaintances, how they are falling over themselves to serve her, how beautiful and gentle she is, how much Bob and she are in love with each other but somehow her portrayal isn’t convincing. She comes into Bob’s life unexpectedly, we get glimpses of her life before that (the party out with her posh friends is pretty well-done), there is even a father hovering somewhere in the background (and a pretty callous one I thought since he never seems to have even enquired about her the moment she decides to shift to Bob’s boarding house) but she never seemed a full-blooded woman to me. Perhaps this is deliberate in order to accentuate the ephemeral quality that Remarque wants to impart to her. She is like the vision of a beautiful life that Bob dreams of but unfortunately it’s not successful. She remained a few gestures, a few cries, a few dresses for me. Much more solid to me was Bob’s bonding with Lisa, a prostitute with whom he had spent a few night of loneliness when Patricia was not in his life. And his encounter with her when she understands that now she has no place in his life is one of the most moving ones in the novel:
She took a kimono from the cupboard and a pair of faded brocade slippers from better days. As she did so she smiled almost guiltily. She did want to please. I had a sudden choking feeling, up here in the little room, as if someone belonging to me had died.
We ate and I talked warily with her. But she perceived, for all that, that something had changed. Her eyes became fearful. There had never been any more between us than chance had brought. But perhaps that makes a greater indebtedness and binds closer than much else.
Also as Bob becomes closer to Patricia, his interaction with his friends becomes less. And I didn’t like that because his friendship with Otto and Lenz was for me the mainstay of the novel. The taciturn Otto and the garrulous Lenz who are his ‘loco parentis’ are just the kind of friends that one needs. I absolutely loved the scenes among them.
In fact, there are many scenes which just stand out: the amusement-park; the auto-race; the Christmas party; the Salvation Army in the graveyard; the baker standing in front of his wife’s portrait are scenes which are going to stay with me for a long time.
I also loved Remarque’s poetic language. sample these:
We three were now left alone in the inn parlour. It was suddenly very quiet. The cuckoo clock ticked. The hostess cleared away and looked down on us maternally. A brown retriever lay stretched, out in front of the stove. Now and then he would bark in his sleep, softly, high and plaintive. Outside the wind sighed past the window. Snatches of soldiers’ songs drifted in; the little room seemed to lift us and float with us through the night and through the years, past many memories and half-forgotten things.
Softly, almost soundlessly, he went out, a shadow into the shadow, as if he were already extinguished.
But sometimes, at night, the whole artificial structure collapses, life turns into a sobbing insistent melody; out of the senseless grinding of the everlasting barrel organ, rises up a whirlwind of wild desires, cravings, melancholy, hope, without direction seeking an object. Ach, this pitiful need for a little bit of wamth…
I was rooting about among the things for sale when I came on some old books—cheap, well-thumbed copies of the Greek and Latin classics with numerous manuscript notes in the margins. In the discoloured, battered pages were to be read no more the verses of Horace, the songs of Anacreon—only the cry of distress and despair of a life that was lost. To their owner, whoever he was, these books had been a haven of refuge; he had kept them to the last— and if he sent them here, it meant his life was finished.
It was the melancholy secret that reality can arouse desires but never satisfy them; that love begins with a human being but does not end in him; and that everything can be there: a human being, love, happiness, life—and that yet in some terrible way it is always too little, and grows ever less the more it seems.
And some hilarious ones:
The girl did not go. Slim and silent she stood beside Lenz and me in the twilight. I expected Gottfried to profit by the opportunity and get busy like a bomb. He was made for such situations. But he seemed to have lost the faculty of speech. Ordinarily he could woo like a turkey cock—but now he just stood like a Carmelite monk on leave and did not stir.
Despite my problems with the character of Patricia, this was a wonderful way to finish the #1936 Club. The book made me laugh, turn misty-eye and even blubber in chapter XIV:
“And what for?” said he slowly. “What for? Damn it.”
First Line: The sky was yellow as brass, not yet hidden by the smoke from the chimney stacks.
Original Title: Drei Kameraden
Original Language: German
Translator: A. W. Wheen
First Published: 1936
Other books read of the same author: All Quiet on the Western Front, Night in Lisbon
Have you read the book? What are your views?