The Train Was on Time
The book centres on the story of a German soldier, Andreas, taking a train from Paris (France) to Przemyśl (Poland). The story focuses on the experience of German soldiers during the Second World War on the Eastern Front where fighting was particularly vicious and unforgiving; Böll had earlier explored the same experience in A Soldier's Legacy which was written in 1948 but published later.
On his way to the war front, he meets two other Germans with whom he starts a dialogue and a short-term friendship; he also meets Olina, a Polish prostitute, who has been working for the anti-fascist partisans but who has become disillusioned with such activity, seeing it as begetting yet further cycles of violence and aggression rather than leading to a proper way out of the bellicosity of the situation. During their trip we learn much about horrors soldiers endure in the war, and the effect it leaves on a person. Andreas has a particularly passive (some might say stoic) attitude to his involvement in the conflict, and the inevitability of death (and the question of fate) hangs over the narrative in a tragic fashion. It is arguable that the only real choices in the novel, presented in its opening gambits, involve the place and manner of Andreas's death in the war, rather than the possibility of its evasion. This tragic fate seems to be circumvented to some extent when Andreas meets Olina and they plan an escape to the Carpathian mountains, but the eventual fate cannot (it appears) be overlooked. In this sense, connections can be made between the work and the structure of ancient Greek tragedies such as the story of Oedipus.
In this short novel Böll attempted to follow the development of battle-induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
There is also a religious dimension to the novel, given Andreas's friendship with a priest called Paul. Just before the fateful ending, Andreas muses "O God, my time has passed and what have I done with it? I have never done anything worth doing. I must pray, pray for all."
The book was translated into English by Leila Vennewitz.
- Helmut Peitsch, Charles Burdett, Claire Gorrara (eds) (2006). European Memories of the Second World War. Berghahn Books. p. 9. ISBN 1845451589. Retrieved 12 July 2014.
- Conrad, Robert C. (1992). Understanding Heinrich Böll. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 24. ISBN 0872497798. Retrieved 12 July 2014.
- Boll, Heinrich (1967). The train was on time. Sphere Books. p. 123.