Two people are stuck together on a train in a despondent land.
Liksom’s (Dark Paradise, 2006, etc.) book comes with a strong pedigree—a Finlandia Prize and an English PEN translation award. Set during the Soviet-Afghan war, this dark, cheerless, meditative short novel focuses on two characters: an unnamed female college student from Finland who’s studying in Moscow and Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a slovenly, brutish, foulmouthed former soldier who now works construction. They share a cramped compartment on the train to Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator. She’s fulfilling a wish she and her boyfriend, Mitka, once had. He’s now in a mental institution; she’s trying to come to grips with his illness. To pass the time she reads Vsevolod Garshin’s The Scarlet Flower, about a man in an insane asylum. The “girl,” as she’s named, never speaks. Vadim spews forth racial insults and talks incessantly about sex, Russia, and his rotten wife (at the train station the girl caught a glimpse of her swollen face). He also tells her, “Don’t believe everything I feed you.” They play draughts and share food; he gets drunk. Told from her perspective, it’s a highly detailed travelogue, with occasional flashbacks to her past. The train moves, stops, moves, breaks down, moves again, while Russian classical music plays from small speakers. She’s always gazing out the window through “gritty sleet, mud and snow” at the cold, bleak, harsh taiga. One of the book’s strengths is the many highly detailed, poetic descriptions of the mountains, snow-covered plains, and isolated, poverty-stricken towns with squalid and derelict buildings. Occasionally, the two of them venture out to explore, search for scarce food. Eventually, they manage to fashion an odd, quixotic relationship. This relentless tale of “light and shadow,” with its “joys, sorrows, hope, hopelessness, hate and, perhaps, love,” taxes and batters us until we finally acquiesce.
An unsettling, politically charged parable about the proletariat’s Soviet Union on the eve of dissolution.