He’s posted at the far end of the train, at the back of the last wagon in a compartment slathered in thick paint, a cell, pierced by three openings, that the smokers have seized immediately. This is where he’s found himself a spot, a volume of space still unoccupied, notched between other bodies. He has pressed his forehead to the back window of the train, the one that looks out over the tracks, and stays there watching the land speed by at 60km/h—in this moment it’s a wooly mauve wilderness, his shitty country.
Aliocha, twenty years old, a boy in a man’s still uncertain body, is onboard the Trans-Siberian railway bound for an undisclosed location in the far eastern reaches of his nation, one of the many Spring recruits too poor, too unfortunate to have otherwise devised a plan to avoid compulsory military service. As Moscow slips farther into the distance and the vast Siberian landscape opens up around him—“this enclave bordered only by the immensity”—he desperately wants to find a way out. The only practical solution he can imagine is to simply get off at one of the many stations on route and disappear, risk everything to lose himself somewhere, anywhere other than on this train packed with anxious recruits and assorted restless travellers.
This is the conflict French author Maylis de Kerangal sets in the early pages of Eastbound, her latest novella to be released in Jessica Moore’s English translation. Of course, Aliocha’s first attempt at escape is foiled and he finds himself back on the train, back in his favourite spot watching the rails roll away behind him into the dark night. But soon he is not alone, the foreign woman he had just seen on the platform joins him, a lonely vigil of her own to keep. Hélène has just left her Russian lover, a man she had followed from Paris to Siberia when he was offered a job he couldn’t refuse, but the isolation and loneliness proved too much for her. Once she decided she had to leave, she had to act fast, catching the first train coming through town—eastbound to Vladivostok—away from Anton, but away from France too.
There is a distance—age, language, culture—between Aliocha and Hélène, but the boy impresses upon the French woman, with a mix of pantomime and force, that he wants to take refuge in her first class compartment until he can escape the fate that awaits him. What develops is an uneasy, unsettled alliance that becomes increasingly tense as the young would-be deserter’s absence is finally noticed. From the opening pages, de Kerangal’s prose carries the emotional intensity swelling in the cramped quarters of the train, the Siberian landscape rushing past the windows, and the increasingly fraught atmosphere of the station breaks without dropping a beat. Long, breathless sentences open across pages, punctuated here and there with short staccato statements. In vivid contrast to the vast expanse unfolding beyond the train, she zeroes in on her protagonists’ minute physical sensations, doubts and fears, effectively playing on the balance between infinite and finite.
Externally, Lake Baikal is an obvious highlight, a treasured vision momentarily uniting everyone onboard (except Aliocha who, much to Hélène’s dismay, is still in hiding in her compartment when she thought he had disembarked). The excitement rises off the page as passengers hurry out to witness its passage, record it with cameras and cell phones, and celebrate with cake, vodka and song. Baikal is a shimmering source of national pride:
The lake is alternately the inland sea and the sky inversed, the chasm and the sanctuary, the abyss and purity, tabernacle and diamond, it is the blue eye of the Earth, the beauty of the world, and soon, swaying in unison with the other passengers, Hélène, too, is taking a photo with her phone, an image she sends to Anton straightaway, the train is passing Lake Baikal and I am at the window on the corridor side, I’m thinking of you.
But it is the smaller human drama—will Hélène continue to protect Aliocha and can he manage to avoid detection?—that gives this novella its true momentum. The growing tension and affection between the French woman and the frightened but muscular young man, mediated with gestures and limited shared vocabulary, is unfolding in the confined spaces of the moving train. At less than 130 pages, Maylis de Kerangal’s Eastbound is a short, perfect embodiment of the principle that less is more. Not a single word is wasted here, but her characters emerge as full-bodied, conflicted individuals and the suspense, which starts out as a simmer, builds to an intense boil that is likely to have you holding your breath at its peak.
Developed from a short story composed in 2010 when the author was travelling on the Trans-Siberian as part of the French Ministry of Culture’s programme of French-Russian events, Eastbound was originally published in French in 2012. Sadly, her portrait of the rebel Russian soldier is eerily timely now, a decade later. Eastbound by Maylis de Kerangal is translated by Jessica Moore and published by Archipelago Books in North America and Les Fugitives in the UK.