“Siberia–fuck! […] a territory of banishment, giant oubliette of the Tsarist empire before it turns Gulag country.”
The Trans-Siberian railway evokes a romantic feel, but that feeling is absent in Maylis de Kerangel’s Eastbound. Set on the train heading for Vladivostok, the novel explores themes of loneliness and escape through two characters: conscript 20-year-old Aliocha, and Hélène, an older French woman who is fleeing from a relationship. Aliocha, in his third class compartment with other soldiers, is desperate. He had no desire to join the army but did not have the necessary connections, money, or waivers to escape conscription.
Right up until the last, Aliocha had believed he wouldn’t have to go. Right up until April 1st., the traditional day of the Spring Draft, he thought he would manage to avoid military service, to fake out the system, and be exempted–and to tell the truth, there’s not a single guy in Moscow between eighteen and twenty-seven years old who hasn’t tried to do the same. It’s the young men of means who tend to be favoured at this game; the others do what they can, meanwhile their mothers scream in Pushkin Square, in ever-increasing numbers since the soldier Sytchev* was martyred, and gather around Valentina Melnikova, President of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers–they’re fearsome, boiling mad, determined, and if the cameras turn up they rush to fit their eager faces in the frame: I don’t want my son to go, and he’s not even a drinker! When reprieves run out, the next option is the false medical certificate, bought for an arm and a leg from doctors who slip the cash directly into their breast pockets, and the families who’ve been bled dry go home and get smashed in relief. If this doesn’t work, and when anxiety has bitten down night after night to the quick, then come the direct attempts at bribery. These can be effective but slow to put into action and meanwhile time is galloping past–investigating the networks of influence within administrations, identifying the right person, the one who’ll be able to intervene, all this takes a crazy amount of time. And finally, when there’s nothing left, when it’s looking hopeless, there are women. Find one before winter and get her knocked up–this is all that’s left to do because at six months, a pregnancy will grant an exemption.
After being beaten by other soldiers, and knowing this is the beginning of the hell that awaits, Aliocha takes his fate in his hands and decides to escape.
It’s the end of the afternoon and the sky is turning to ash. The back window is free again and Aliocha leaps to it, magnetized to this unique focal point on the world–like an eye in the back of your head–captivated by the sight of the tracks that hurtle backwards into the landscape.
After his first attempt to escape fails, Aliocha meets Hélène, a French woman on the train; they share a cigarette, and even though their communications are limited, she understands, through Aliocha’s gestures, that he does not want to be a soldier, and so she hides him. Of course, she doesn’t realise the extent of the danger or grasp the commitment that she has not yet made. This is an incredibly tense novella, quite cinematic in its execution. Naturally claustrophobic due to its setting, the speeding train rushing towards Siberia accelerates the notion of freedom, taking a chance.
Thinking over the use of travel in fiction. Regular readers know I have a thing for books that involve holidays. Holiday travel in books is seen as stressful, exciting, the gateway to possibilities of new experiences, romance. But travel in books set in wartime is an entirely different animal: it’s desperation, fear, anxiety, escape, danger.
Here’s Joe’s review at Rough Ghosts.
*Dedovshchina is the practice of hazing/abusing conscripts. In 2006, Andrei Sytchev was an 18-year-old conscript who was tied to a chair and beaten. He was so badly beaten, his legs and his genitals had to be amputated.
Translated by Jessica Moore. Review copy.