Compartment No 6 by Rosa Liksom
|Compartment No 6 by Rosa Liksom|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: This provides an expert outsider's-eye view of late Soviet times, and the Trans-Siberian Railway journey specifically, but doesn't entertain nearly enough with its chalk-and-cheese relationship story.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 192||Date: May 2014|
|Publisher: Serpent's Tail|
A young woman, called throughout only by the title 'the girl', gets on the Trans-Siberian Railway in Moscow, bound for Mongolia for reasons unknown. She has to share the four-berth compartment of the title with only one other person, but he fills the space – a gruff, vitriolic, bigoted middle-aged man, very much the cheese to her chalk. She says nothing whatsoever, while he prattles on in a misogynistic way, and the train itself rattles on, taking them through the least occupied areas of Europe and beyond and towards whatever kind of companionship they might form…
I wanted so much more from this book. The vivid description of the whole journey seemed spot on to me; I've never taken the trip but I've read enough about the home-made, vodka-fuelled picnics that carry people through the evenings on board the train. The fact the story seems to have been set in the late 1980s – certainly the Wall has not fallen yet – suggests we need to bear in mind the character of the country the train is going through, and we get that in spades – the journey taking many false starts, the train engine being nursed by scheduled delays, and the rundown aspects of many of the places people disembark at.
Several times, especially when the train/the characters/we leave the major cities there is a poetic description of what the city looks like and where it ends, and these short stretches of writing soon prove themselves to be interchangeable, cut-and-paste jobs, with several different cottages ruined under the weight of Siberian snow, for instance. This is clearly for effect, and the enthusiastic listing description of Soviet Russia when the border with Mongolia is reached is clearly to be read as some kind of eulogy to the region – I was reminded of the film-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski saying he filmed in Soviet apartment block campuses because of their beauty – something perhaps you needed to be at one remove from Soviet life to see (he being Polish, and as close-yet-separate to Russia as our Finnish author).
But what the blurb wants to sell us, and what fell much shorter than the spirit of the evocative USSR descriptions did for me, is the relationship in the compartment between the two characters. I just found this dull, for all the unlikeliness in her remaining utterly silent to him throughout the train ride, for all the many trips and diversions they take together, and for all the intimacy they share over the picnic table. He might have been a fully realised character and all his racial bigotry accurately portrayed, but he adds a sense of unreliable narrator to things with his own cut-and-paste stories. Her backstory is a part of things too, but presented to us in random wisps – I was reminded of the way one looks out of the train windows watching the world go by and through the angles of light is suddenly given instead a reflection of oneself at the window.
And as for the way these two form a companionship, considering their innate differences, well… It just wasn't for me. I found myself thinking the whole book was actually geared to showing the negative history of Russia – the train was the country, hurtling through either saying the wrong things or silently, meekly conceding things, and miring itself in a boring future of alcohol, racism, sexual violence and tedium. As you can see I was almost in the end forced to make the book about Russia and Russianness for my own purposes, for I found little enjoyment in these pages elsewhere. If I ever do get on to one of the carriages as featured here it would be in the company of the Thubron or Theroux non-fiction books concerning the Trans-Siberian, and not this short novel, however correctly it defines the Soviet spirit as seen by the community of the train.
I must still thank the publishers for my review copy.
Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andrei Makine looks at a similar place in Russia at a similar time, in a very different way.
You can read more book reviews or buy Compartment No 6 by Rosa Liksom at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Compartment No 6 by Rosa Liksom at Amazon.com.
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