This first novel by Heinrich Böll, who would later win the Nobel Prize, begins with a German soldier in World War II waiting for a train in Poland that will be taking him to the Russian front. You can guess from the title of the novel, that the punctuality of train is ominous. He begins with a clear premonition that he is going to die as a result of this trip, and that he is going to die very soon. There’s a gross scene early in which two Germans are talking about one says to the other something about the war being won already (our soldier is quite dubious) because by the very act of declaring war, the German army (through the metonym of Hitler) has already won. This authoritarian double-speak will become increasingly more familiar in novels for the next 70 years, but not only is this a novel freshly written after the war, it’s one written by a German writer. This position allows for a kind of knowingness that gives this novel a level of intensity.
Another level of intensity comes from the novel’s sense of claustrophobia on the train, the claustrophobia of the soldier’s thoughts (it’s a third person narration, but is often told close to his thoughts), and the claustrophobia of the time setting in the novel, which is pointing us closer and closer to a sense of death. It’s also a very short novel, so the tension is heightened by the amount of space the novel physically occupies in our hands. It doesn’t bode well for the soldier that he is not in control of his own story, and that story is clearly a short one.