All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Maria Remarque, is regarded to be the finest war novel ever written.
It starts (and ends) on Germany’s frontlines amid World War I. In this, context and atmosphere are revealed through description (at times quite graphic). However, since the story is told in first person, the most significant soldier is Paul Baumer – a young German who offers his services to his country and the Kaiser. Though most authors choose a main character to narrate their experiences to demonstrate war’s horrors, Remarque does notably well in its execution. This is likely due to the fact that his stories have a touch of personal truth – he was a reluctant participant in both wars, and had to face the cruelties and destruction head on. Thus, the terrors he witnessed (though vile), give new life and unexpected curiosity to his work. To put it simply: to get the full message, every page must be read twice.
Now, to the plot: it’s fairly simple. Paul and his friends have entered a war in which, without regard to survival, they have been physically and mentally scared beyond recovery. In other words, they can no longer return to innocence and the foolish years they spent as children – they’ve grown old faster in a three to four year span than for most. As such, Remarque is able to illustrate and weave themes still relevant to our time. For one, war’s terrible brutalities. As most novels tend to romanticize war and demonstrate honor and adventure, All Quiet does quite the opposite. To explain, the scenes that aren’t dedicated to hunger and filth depict even harsher conditions – corpses, lice infestation, mice, loss, and so on. Therefore, a more realistic ‘picture’ is represented, which clarifies to readers that war is indeed, not a matter to trifle with.
Moreover, the message above ties in with yet another lesson: its effect on soldiers. For instance, Remarque illustrates (I won’t spoil though!) war’s overall impact as “ruinous” and “severe.” In turn, his characters (such as Paul) must face emotion suppression and disconnection from reality in order to last the battles. To be entirely aware, Paul claims, would be impossible – there’d be too much to bear and fight through on a physiologic degree.
In short, All Quiet on the Western Front is, at most, a must read.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.