By Jeff Bursey
According to publicity material, Rosa Liksom (born in 1958 as Anni Ylävaara) is from a tiny Sami village “where her parents were reindeer breeders and farmers.” She has travelled widely across Europe and in what used to be the USSR, and must have drawn on some of those experiences for her novel Compartment No. 6, which won the Finlandia Prize in 2011. On awarding the prize, judge Pekka Milonoff said that this short book is “an extraordinarily compact, poetic and multilayered description of a train journey through Russia… Liksom is a master of controlled exaggeration. With a couple of carefully chosen brushstrokes, a mini-story, she is able to conjure up an entire human destiny.”
The train journey starts in Moscow and ends in Ulaanbaatar (formerly written as Ulan Bator), Mongolia. There are two main characters: the Russian labourer Vadim Ivanov, who is possibly a murderer—he states that there are “‘thousands and thousands of truths. Every fellow has his own.’”—and a Finnish student, most often referred to as “the girl,” who lives in Moscow and is now seeing some of the rest of the country. They share a compartment for a long journey that is only interrupted by stops which vary from no time at all—“‘No one gets off at this station!’” an attendant commands—to breaks of a day or more, such as at Novosibirsk: “‘Our beloved Victory engine with the red star on its forehead has given its all,’” says the same attendant, Arisa. “‘If it doesn’t get some time to cool down and rest, it will die, and that’s not something any of us wants. We’re going to let him take a breather, a few days’ rest.’” Despite these excursions to villages and cities, for the most part we are as trapped as the girl with her coarse, threatening, sentimental, generous, reminiscing fellow passenger, a man in his mid-forties who has had a rough upbringing, stemming, for the most part, from the fact that his parents didn’t want him: “The boy heard his father tell his mother she had to choose, the boy or him. To which she answered, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be dead soon, and we can be alone.’”
The novel is set during the middle to last years of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989) and this conflict supplies part of the conditions through which the tourists and workers travel. At every stop, as in Moscow, purchasing basic items is a challenge because “instead of food supplies the Soviet government was concentrating on arms production.” On the personal level, the girl’s onetime boyfriend, Mitka, decided some time ago to enter a “mental hospital to avoid the army” but this backfires disastrously: “According to the military doctor’s diagnosis, Mitka was psychotic and was given antipsychotic medication. When a healthy person is forced to take that kind of medicine it can’t be good for them.” In his absence the girl enters into a romantic relationship with Mitka’s mother. On Vadim’s part, his strong opinions regarding the war are stirred when he sees an officer on the train: “‘I can’t stand looking at roosters like that guy. Dressed up like a whore for the Party. Guys like that are the reason we still haven’t beaten the Afghans. A pansy like that is worse than those fairy Afghan fighters… If guys like me were running the war the way it should be run, we would’ve beaten those phoney kings in the first attack.’”
Through the use of the war, and casual references to Estonians and others, the larger world is brought into the narrative, and that serves several purposes: it allows other topics to be discussed so that the book does not become claustrophobic; it gives us routes into the characters’ minds through internal and external speech (we never hear the girl say a word, and we never get a glimpse of Vadim’s private thoughts); it shows the geopolitical-military world that the USSR inhabits and which it’s largely shaped by; it highlights the national effects of what has been called the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, a so-called turning point in its history (if there are such things) that played a part in advancing it down the road toward dissolution; and in its uniting of the girl who first occupied the compartment with Vadim (most often called “the man”) with his boasting, his menace and his rapacious intent—“My little whore, I could stick this stump of a cock through you like you were made of head cheese”—Liksom enacts the life of an original occupant terrorized, then warily friendly with and fitfully thankful for, the brutal colonizer who believes everyone in the USSR “‘ought to become Russians.’”
The novel’s language gestures towards larger concerns than character exploration right at the start when Vadim indulges in broad stereotypes:
I was thinking for a moment that they’d given this old codger a stiff sentence, put me in the same cage with an Estonian. There’s a difference between the Finlyandskaya respublika and the Sovietskaya Estonskaya respublika. Estonians are hook-nosed German Nazis, but Finns are basically made from the same flesh as we are. Finlandiya is a little potato way up north. You people are no trouble. All the world’s northern people are one tribe, a northern pride holds us together. By the way, Miss, you’re the first Finn I’ve ever seen. But I’ve heard a lot about you.
At one point Vadim lectures the girl that “‘there are certain rules in life that every citizen has to follow. You’re here as my guest.’” This is not true or accurate either as it relates to the train compartment or to the country as a whole, but the deeper meaning is clear: he takes care of the tea, the vodka, sometimes food, and shares what he has, but he looks to lay waste to her at various opportunities, blaming Lucifer for his sexual advances and then seeking forgiveness. She at times flees the train or acts subversively: “She took a bottle of nail polish remover out of her bag, emptied it into his vodka glass, and slumped onto her bunk.” Yet she likes the man’s smile and later, when he calls her “my girl,” and he has rescued her from a Mongolian tour guide, she feels safer and breathes easier. In one passage the narrator pictures Vadim with a “tired, cloudy look in his eyes,” but despite his omnipresent knife and his physical handling of her she finds that look “felt homely to her.”
It’s an open question, one not answered directly within the narrative, if over the course of the train ride and excursions in the countryside the girl has developed a conflicted, minor crush on Vadim (whose good physical shape is often remarked on) as a counter to her less capable ex-boyfriend and her lesbian lover, or if her travails are meant to reflect and encapsulate the historical fate of people subjugated by Russia and then the USSR.
We are in a world of stories where, as Vadim randomly tells about his past and present, threats of violence alternate with actual violence. At the same time as we hear about his degraded life, the train passes through habitations that reveal, in sharply-worded vignettes, the crumbling nature of the country from societal, industrial and ecological perspectives:
Omsk is left behind. A closed city. Weary old, good old Omsk, sucked dry by the taiga, abandoned by youth… the lines outside the shoe shop, the tired land, the row of timber dachas faded grey. A lonely nineteen-storey building in the middle of a field, a five-hundred-kilometre oil pipeline, the yellow flames and black smoke from the oil rigs.
Krasnoyarsk looked enormous as they approached from the west. It spread out over the fields, trees, and ravines. It dried up the lakes and whittled the Ice Age stones smooth as it headed east. It tore villages to the ground and begat concrete skyscrapers. The forest of plump trees was logged off, the logged-off land became a construction site, the construction site a suburb, and the suburb fused with the city.
[Two fishermen in Khabarovsk] offered her some foul-smelling vodka and nice-tasting fish. The man who smelled of resin, who had unbelievably bad teeth, told her that the previous summer a toxic spill from China had killed almost all the fish… The wind sighed and the [Amur] river smelled of rot. The odour of decayed wood, sodden sawdust, household trash, oil, naphtha, and the foamy residue left by the barges covered over the ineffable scent of the ice breaking up.
“‘If we do find oil [a female surveyor or geologist tells the girl], they’ll bulldoze the village and put an oil rig in its place. Shoot the dogs, since they won’t be needed any more. The people in the village will be shipped somewhere else—the next village, which could be three hundred kilometres away.’”
Of course, deteriorating conditions predate the Soviet-Afghan War. As the narrative relates when the Mongolian border is in sight: “the men, women and children executed at the edges of mass graves, the millions of Soviet citizens that the machine has abused, tortured, mistreated, neglected, trampled, cowed, humiliated, oppressed, terrorised, cheated, raised on violence, made to suffer, are all left behind.” On the train the communal washroom facilities are “filthy and the stench was pungent. Pee and soap and wads of newspapers floated around on the floor. Not a drop of water came out of the tap… The little window of the WC was open a crack. An abandoned, forgotten station was passing by.” Nothing is doing well or has been doing well for quite some time.
Intense visual concentration on the natural world and the condition of Soviet cities match the girl’s sketches of the passing countryside and of Vadim, the “‘shaggy, iron-belted Soviet Citizen who pissed pure vodka.’” He at first comes across as an aggressive alcoholic with no sensitivities, a man run by his appetites, but then he will do something that rescues him from looking like a cartoon. Though I could be reading too much into this, it may be Liksom’s intent to make him appear over-sized when, early on, he speaks of a friend named Petya who had been killed at a construction site by “‘a wretched little excavator… I took a sledgehammer and smashed it beyond repair.’” This is very much in the self-aggrandizing and myth-making vein of “Walk On Boy,” an American country song:
If anyone should ever ask you,
“Just who is that fella Brown?”
You can tell him I’m the boy
Who left his hammer smokin’
Where he beat that steam drill down.
Vadim’s destructive action, indicative of character, is hardly a good example of the Stakhanovite movement with its emphasis on efficiency and productivity; indeed, quite the contrary. Close to the end of the novel we see both sides of this more realistic and contradictory Soviet citizen: “The man rattled and whimpered, an agonized look on his face. He straightened his back for a moment and stared at the girl, his gaze unwavering, then collapsed in a heap. His face was very old and tired. He looked at her again, sleepily, disdainfully.”
When the journey ends in Mongolia the novel ends, for me, in a bit of a fizzle. There is the obligatory trip to a village of yurts, a rough-natured visit by security services, a rescue of the damsel by the brute, and a final separation for the girl from her unwanted but necessary partner. “To Moscow!” is the cry that ends Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6, but the girl on the train is on a more compelling adventure than the one with airplane tickets for her return trip.
Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom, trans. Lola Rogers | Graywolf Press | 192 pages | $22.99 | paper | ISBN: 9781555977474