Published By: Vintage
Released On: 03/01/1996
Translated By: Brian Murdoch
In 1914 a room full of German schoolboys, fresh-faced and idealistic, are goaded by their schoolmaster to troop off to the ‘glorious war’. With the fire and patriotism of youth they sign up. What follows is the moving story of a young ‘unknown soldier’ experiencing the horror and disillusionment of life in the trenches.
I debated whether to write a review for this or not. It’s nearly 100 years old and I thought people probably want to read reviews of recent books or upcoming books, to know if there’s any worth buying. But it’s such a powerful book I felt it was important to voice my opinion.
Considering I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to classics (currently sitting at just under 100 books), I don’t usually gravitate towards them for something to read as they’re a bit harder to get into than modern ones, usually due to the language or publishing style of the day. But I had a bit of leeway before getting really stuck into my 2023 books, I thought I’d read this. Relatively short at just about 200 pages, with a story that I semi-knew from being forced (when you’re a kid, these kind of things are forced) to watch the movie as a kid by my late father. How the tides have turned, as now I am desperate to watch the new version streaming on Netflix.
But it took me much longer to read than I thought. If I’m honest, with a lot of books, I tend to skim read. Being dyslexic, if there’s a word I just cannot get, I will skim over it and try to make the meaning of the sentence by the rest of the words in it. I admit that. I don’t usually read every single word in a book and I’m sure most of you don’t either, if you really think about it. But this one, I consciously read every single word. Each one is so well thought out and served a purpose to the story, it felt like a disservice not to get fully absorbed in the lexicon.
It is basically a telling of one soldier’s experiences of fighting on the front line. It could have quite easily just been a ramble, a rambling steam of consciousness, but it’s well restrained without losing its urgency.
I have a love/hate relationship with translated works, as I often find the meaning and emotion of the original work is lost in order to make the actual words make sense. But this doesn’t seem like it. Okay, so I haven’t actually read the original version (something to do with me only knowing about 3 German words), and so I can’t say if it’s a perfect likeness, but just from reading this version, there’s so much heart in it that I’m having an educated guess that it’s as close to the original as possible.
As an English reader, it’s interesting reading about the war from the opposite side. We all know that the Germans and the English were not friends during either WW1 or WW2, and whilst I have never subscribed to those fractured relations, it was an eye opener seeing the war described by a German. It’s obvious that the experiences and the emotions would be the same for any soldier no matter their nationality. It was weird as I was really rooting for the narrator and willing them on, and it’s only then that you stop and realise they would have been fighting my kinsmen. And I think to achieve that, is excellent. It shows that at the end of the day, all the boys and men fighting were human and all the same, regardless of who they fought for. It was a horrific situation, and one I hope we never forget, even more so now most, if not all, WW1 soldiers have passed.
You can tell Remarque had first-hand experience with fighting. It’s just too perfect to solely be a work of imagination. And I think that’s what emphasises how powerful it is. As factual as it can get, whilst still being a fictional piece of entertainment.
I’m fascinated by this take on the fighting. Most books or films are all about that hero life, about laying down your life for your country. But for most, war was terrifying. It’s about doing what you can to survive, whilst keeping hold of your humanity. That’s a heroism of another kind.
It has been said that this is the most powerful war book ever and is often on peoples favourite book lists, and I can completely see why. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s so passionate and full of heart and Ruby human.
I have just seen that there was a sequel so I’ll definitely be reading that!
I believe everyone should read this book at least once.