A huge fan of Erich Maria Remarque as I am, surprisingly I hadn’t read two of his most famous novels – Arch of Triumph and All Quiet on the Western Front. After 5 novels (Shadows in Paradise, Three Comrades, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Night in Lisbon and The Black Obelisk), his voice sounds so familiar, that while reading I feel an overwhelming calmness. In a world where nothing is right, where humanity has continued on the path to self-destruction, and where hopelessness and despair become everyday sentiments, Remarque’s fiction is a reminder, a sort of wake-up call to beauty and love. Even on the verge of a second World War, people are still fighting the same problems – hatred, jealousy, envy – and people are still able to love – completely, selflessly, passionately.
Erich Maria Remarque’s involvement in WWI largely determines the main theme of his fiction. The anti-war and anti-fascism sentiments of the author are present in all the novels I’ve read but it seems they are the most palpable and evident in the Arc of Triumph. On the eve of WWII Europe is in the atmosphere of spiritual stagnation and despair. A certain disillusionment hovers in the air; the exiles leave by habit, surviving every day as if it might be their last. One of these nameless, faceless souls is Ravic, a German doctor hiding in Paris. Fascism has taken everything from him – his home, his practice, his passport, his identity, his belief, and even his ability to love. Arch of Triumph is a story of the difficult path of spiritual, moral and physical preservation in a world of political persecution and uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.
Ravic seems content, or rather resigned to his way of life. He is forced to practice his profession illegally, to live in poor hotels as an illegal immigrant and to constantly fear deportation and return to concentration camps. His philosophical approach of life is the only thing that helps him keep his sanity in a world gone completely insane. Not looking for anything in general and not expecting anything in particular, Ravic is annoyed when a woman crosses his path – a woman more lost than he is.
A random meeting in the night and a dead body bring Joan Madou, a wannabe actress, to Ravic. She has lost her lover and he hasn’t owned anything in a long time. In the turbulent times they are forced to live in, Ravic and Madou cling to each other and desperately try to make it work. Their love is passionate, their relationship complex, their conversations philosophical and contradictory. One of the best characters Remarque has created, Ravic and Madou are just the way I would imagine someone living in Paris on the verge of the war be – impatient, jealous, wanting desperately to take everything from life now and today because it might not be there tomorrow. And when destiny separates them, it seems Ravic and Madou are unable to go back to the way it was before. That is the problem with love in turbulent times – you have to hold it tight because it is fleeting and it can easily slip your fingers.
In these pre-war years Paris features a turbulent underground world of its own – the world of prostitutes, immigrants, illegal abortions, whorehouses, and dirty hotels. The American suffering from cancer, the poor boy who is trying to trick the insurance agency to pay for an expensive artificial leg and then sells it to open up a business, the young girl who nearly dies during illegal abortion and yet returns to the man, they are all victims of the times. When the whole world is upside down, it is nearly impossible to keep your life straight, to remain sane in a world of lunatics. For Ravic love brings a temporary consolation, a rock to hold on to while the past is eminently trying to reach him. But even if you manage to forget the past and not regret, it would one day haunt you. Because this past exactly determines your future.
In Remarque’s world war is futile but inevitable. It is just inherent in people’s bloods – the only animal that kills itself not for survival but for power and greed. And yet, in Remarque’s world love is always possible. Even if a man and a woman are the last people on the world, love would still be a possibility. And it brings some form of consolation – no matter how hard the human instinct is to destroy whatever he has created, there is always a stronger force – an unbeatable desire to hold another and to give yourself completely.
Remarque is the same, the same and different in his novels. There is always the war and there is always the love. His characters are philosophical suffering creatures, who are not destined to be happy. At least not in widely accepted definition of happiness. Because what is happiness if not a single moment, so short that it is very easy to miss it. In that case, Remarque’s characters are the happiest in the world.