The Road Back: A Novel - Arthur Wesley Wheen, Erich Maria Remarque Der Weg zurück - Erich Maria Remarque, Tilman Westphalen

I’m yet again lagging behind in writing reviews. This one is one I meant to pen last weekend, shortly after I finished my re-read of The Road Back in anticipation of the centenary of the end of the First World War.

As it happens, I’m finally sitting down to write a review on the evening before Armistice Day and writing it while in Paris, where the US President (I still can’t type this with a straight face, sorrynotsorry) has canceled visiting the US war graves today because it was raining.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Neither he nor his staff could find an umbrella to shield them from the light rain this morning.

Incompetence? Or could he just not be arsed? Every other head of state in town at the moment managed to find a way.

Anyway, I’m getting back to the book now:

Remarque is, of course, best known for All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows a group of schoolboys from a small village who volunteered to fight in the hells of the First World War.

However, it is in The Road Back (Der Weg Zurueck) that Remarque shows how those that survived the front had to keep on surviving, and how the “ravages of war” took lives in more ways than by bullets and shells. The book was published in 1931 and I could not help notice that there were some similarities between the main character’s life and Remarque’s. As far as WWI literature goes, there are lots and lots of poems and quotes about war, but not that many books written by someone with first-hand experience.

So when the book starts of with a scene like this, I have no problem believing that this has happened the way Remarque wrote it.

“The fog moves and lifts. And suddenly I know what it is that has thrown us all into such a state of alarm. It has merely become still. Absolutely still.

Not a machine gun, not a shot, not an explosion; no shriek of shells; nothing, absolutely nothing, no shot, no cry. It is simply still, utterly still.

We look at one another; we cannot understand it. This is the first time it has been so quiet since we have been at the Front. We sniff the air and try to figure what it can mean. Is gas creeping over? But the wind is not favourable; it would drive it off. Is an attack coming? But the very silence would have betrayed it already. What is it, 

then? The bomb in my hand is moist, I am sweating so with excitement. One feels as if the nerves must snap. Five minutes. Ten minutes. “A quarter of an hour now,” calls Laher. His voice sounds hollow in the fog as from a grave. Still nothing happens, no attack, no sudden, dark-looming, springing shadows——

Hands relax and clench again tighter. This is not to be borne. We are so accustomed to the noise of the Front that now, when the weight of it suddenly lifts from us, we feel as if we must burst, shoot upward like balloons.

“Why,” says Willy suddenly, “it is peace!” —

It falls like a bomb.

Faces relax, movements become aimless and uncertain. Peace? We look at one another, incredulous. Peace? I let my hand grenades drop. Peace? Ludwig lies down slowly on his waterproof again. Peace? In Bethke’s eyes is an expression as if his whole face would break in pieces. Peace? Wessling stands motionless as a tree; and when he turns his back on it and faces us, he looks as if he meant to keep straight on home.

All at once—in the whirl of our excitement we had hardly observed it—the silence is at an end; once more, dully menacing, comes the noise of gunfire, and already from afar, like the bill of a woodpecker, sounds the knock-knocking of a machine gun. We grow calm and are almost glad to hear again the familiar, trusty noises of death.”

This passage breaks me every time.

Eventually, peace does break out, and the group starts on their long walk back from the Western Front. There is no infrastructure, it’s a long, long march.

Marching, marching. We have now reached the zone of field ambulance stations, of supply depots. A spacious park with plane trees. Stretchers and wounded under the trees. The leaves are falling and covering them in red and gold.

A gas hospital. Bad cases that cannot be moved. Blue faces, waxen green faces, dead eyes, eaten by the acid; wheezing, choking, dying men. They all want to get away; they are afraid of being taken prisoner. —As if it were not a matter of indifference where they die. We try to cheer them, telling them they will be better cared for with the Americans. But they do not listen. Again and again they call to us to take them with us. The cries are terrible. The pallid faces seem so unreal in the light out here in the open. But most awful are the beards. They take on a life of their own; they stand out stiff, fantastical, growing, luxuriating over the sunken jaws, a black fungus that feeds and thrives the more these sag and waste away. Some of the badly wounded reach out their thin, grey arms like children. “Take me with you, mate,” they say, imploring, “Take me with you, mate.” In the hollows of their eyes lurk already deep, strange shadows from which the pupils struggle up with difficulty like drowning things. Others are quiet, following us as far as they can with their eyes.

The cries sound gradually fainter.

Once demobilised, they are handed old civilian suits and boots and are sent back into village life. Most of the survivors had not finished school yet when they enrolled, so they are sent back to their classrooms. Imagine this. They are no longer kids. Most of them spent two years in the trenches, trying to survive the slaughter.

There is nothing that their old school can possibly teach them. They no longer fit in.

Remarque also describes how their family lives have been torn apart. Parents are no longer able to recognise their sons, and the men don’t know what to do or say at home. They are no longer fit to converse about trivial matters and neither are they able to talk about the things that are on their mind. They are restless, and even tho they are at home and safe, they are not able to unwind.

Some go mad. Some try to reconcile their minds in other ways.

Against the backdrop of the Revolution in Germany, the rise of the Freicorps, and black market trading, Remarque’s story also pitches the fate of the ex-soldiers against more than their individual struggles.

What does it amount to? —Everywhere profiteering, suspicion, indifference, utter selfishness.

Even tho the war had just ended, the memory of it is already being erased. Or rather, the memory of the war and the lives of the soldiers are already being hijacked for propaganda.

The fact that Remarque perfectly captures the rise of fascism at a much earlier stage than many others just makes the book so much more tragic. And the fact that there are so many comparisons to be drawn between the rise of nationalism and people hijacking the historical events to advocate for their own purposes at the time that R. wrote this and some of the things that are going on right now is just sad and rage-inducing.

This is no easy read. This is gut-wrenching, hard, at times sickening.

However, Remarque ends this book on a note of hope:

“There will always be such people,” answers Willy, unusually earnest and thoughtful, “but don’t forget us; we are here too. And there’s a lot of people think as we do. Most of them, probably. Ever since then—you know, since Ludwig and Albert—all sorts of things have been going around in my head, and I’ve come to the conclusion that everybody can do something in his own way, even though he may have nothing but a turnip for a head. My holidays are over next week, and I’ll have to go back to the village as a schoolteacher again. And, you know, I’m positively glad of it. I mean to teach my youngsters what their Fatherland really is. Their homeland, that is, not a political party. Their homeland is trees, fields, earth, none of your fulsome catchwords. I’ve considered it all on and off a long time, and I’ve decided that we’re old enough now to do some sort of a job. And that’s mine. It’s not big, I admit. But sufficient for me—and I’m no Goethe, of course.”

I nod and look at him a long while. Then we set off.

Yet, that hope is not sustainable without the foundations of education and remembrance, something that was acknowledged by a number of heads of state this weekend, except for one notable cancellation.


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