Sunday, August 28, 2011

Classic Read: The Road Back

When I was in school, I had a love/hate relation with my English classes. I loved creative writing. I hated having to analyze the classics and there are certain books much beloved in literary circles that bored me to tears.

But there was a bright spot in all the assigned reading. Sometimes I actually did find a book I enjoyed, no assigned reading book reached me and possibly influenced me as much as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It's the story of a young German soldier assigned to fight in the trenches in World War I and how it whittles down everything and everyone he cares about. Perhaps because the main character was only a few years older than me, I found him relatable.

Some years later I heard that there was a sequel called The Road Back that followed characters from the same combat company, but since Paul dies at the end of All Quiet I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. And then I was busy with college, then work, and for a good long while I forgot about the whole thing.

Until I had a hankering to read All Quiet again, and finding myself without a copy at home, I drove over to the public library to check out a copy. They also had The Road Back and I figured, Why not?

I wish I hadn't waited so long.

Though many of the characters who appeared in All Quiet on the Western Front are dead, Tjaden makes a return, still very much the light-hearted prankster of the group, and we're given names to newer characters who presumably were always there in the first book, but weren't as close to Paul (the first person narrator of All Quiet) to have been worth mentioning by name.

For instance, there's a reference to the time they caught two suckling pigs and made pancakes during an air raid. In the first book Paul mentions there were eleven people in the group, but we didn't know the names of all of them at the time. Now we know a few more.

Ernst, the main character of The Road Back, is a similarly eloquent first person narrator to Paul, but does not suffer from the same despair that Paul eventually falls into. He and his friends come back from the war only to find it difficult to fit back into society, which is going into upheaval due to a revolution that has driven the Kaiser from the country and turned Germany into a republic.

Aside from political issues, food is still scarce among civilians and there is little effort to integrate the veterans, several suffering from what we now call PTSD, back into society. Ernst and some of his friends attempt to resume going to school, where they had been studying for their teaching credentials, but their schoolmasters have no idea what it's been like for them in the war and the former soldiers have little patience for what they see as useless work.

All the former soldiers deal with their return differently. Some recover quickly, becoming successful business men. Others fall prey to the demons still haunting them. Ernst himself runs in the middle, for though he cannot escape his memories of the front, there is a certain spark to him that refuses to back down.

Though The Road Back gives the feeling that civilians didn't learn anything from the war, the epilogue even shows a bunch of children just a few years shy of drafting playing war games under the direction of adults, it ends on a brighter note than All Quiet on the Western Front. Ernst realizes that his road is going to be long, painful, and most likely traveled alone. He might never get back to the way he was before the war, but he's going to try.

And I really like that hope that All Quiet never gave. Ernst is a broken man who has trouble fitting into society, but he still fights for what he believes in. He still hopes. He's not beyond repair.

Remarque writes at the start of the All Quiet on the Western Front that:

"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."

The Road Back shows us that what has been destroyed can still be salvaged, and perhaps with time, restored to what it was.