Narrative and Nation

One of the first things that stuck out to me after finishing All Quiet on the Western Front was the relative reliability of the novel’s first narrator (I say first since a second narrator appears at the very end of the novel when we learn of Paul’s passing in October 1918). My previous experiences with war novels were Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carrier (1990), in which the unreliability of the narrator is one of the defining features of these novels. Yet in Remarque’s text, the narrator has a relatively frank and honest narrative voice. Where the narrative lapses is in moments when Paul simply cannot find the words to describe the war. A moment of his frank reliability that in the narrative discourse is unreliability is perhaps best seen when he goes to see Kemmerich’s mother after his death, and to spare her the gruesome details of her son’s slow death, he narrates “I have to tell how it happened, so I invent a story and I almost believe it myself” (181). Paul only unreliably narrates events to other characters to spare them the details of the terror and horror of the war front; to the reader, he is unflinching in his gory descriptions of body parts, rotting corpses, and the intensity of violence constantly bombarding him and his regiment. He only withholds in moments when the words simply cannot capture the feeling, such as when Kemmerich’s mother first hears the news: “I cannot write that down” (180). This relative reliability stands in contrast to the other war novels I’ve read, and I wonder if other Great War novels treat their narration in the same way—it begs the question that are narratives of war unreliable?; or, is our language to elusive and to weak to capture the sheer incomprehensibility of that level of human suffering, and the language and modes of narrative address fracture, crumble, and break as a result of that suffering.

 It was also interesting to read a novel from the perspectives of the Germans. So often the literature I come across seems to be from the perspective of the English, as in most of our World War I poets and the modernists who recounted their experiences of the war. In many ways, Germany is taught in U.S. history as “the enemy” of both World Wars, but the novel points out how arbitrary enemies truly are. This is perhaps best summarized in the following passage:

            “It’s queer, when one thinks about it,” goes on Kropp, “we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right?”

            “Perhaps both,” I say without believing it.

            “Yes, well now,” pursues Albert, and I see that he means to drive me into a corner, “but our professors and parsons and newspapers say that we are the only ones that are right, and let’s hope so;--but French professors and parsons and newspapers say the right is on their side, now what about that?”

            “That I don’t know,” I say, “but whichever way is is there’s war all the same and every month more countries coming in.” [203-04]

This exchange, which questions the idea of right versus wrong in the war, is then followed up by an interesting rumination on the difference between country and state, and the nature of how wars begin: not between the land, the people, or even the culture—but as the result of a few heads of that mysteriously configured “State.” This scene anticipates a later scene in the novel when Paul kills his first man in hand-to-hand combat, where he mourns afterwards that before the enemy solider had just been an “idea…an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response” (223). Now, he realizes they are both just human, with their own mothers, lives, and fears of death. He laments “Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” (223). These ruminations posit the absurdity of war and the fictitious labels that were fabricated to enable it: the “enemy,” the “State,” and “national pride.” The novel perfects captures the feelings of futility, hopelessness, and apparent baselessness that becomes a powerful theme among the WWI poets, modernists, and other war-time and post-war writers.