“Compartment No. 6” unfolds like a poem, or maybe a fable: a mysterious journey by rail across Russia from Moscow to Mongolia over a snow-swept 1980s landscape, not long before the Soviet implosion. But this is not “Doctor Zhivago.”
Ostensibly, spring is coming, yet a lingering winter of blizzards and slush persists, reflecting a grim state: “An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature.”
Nature, brooding like an ailing matriarch, is a significant force in this short novel, although I would say the primary character is a woman known simply as “the girl.” Everything is filtered through her reflections, and she utters no dialogue until nearly the end of the book. This causes other characters to talk to her, proclaiming their life stories and misfortunes.
Most notable is the other main character ensconced in train compartment No. 6, known from the girl’s point of view as “the man.” Readers may chafe at the inequity of this — “the girl” is a graduate student in archaeology originally from Finland — but there are reasons Liksom has characterized the odd pair this way.
The man talks to the girl, or more accurately talks at the girl, brandishing his name (Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov) and tales of his life as an unwanted child, abusive lover, soldier and aging laborer. He is by turns vulgar, menacing, vulnerable and kind, fueled by at least two bottles of vodka a day. He is also a survivor.
With dark humor, the book depicts a fantastical vision of a populace somehow muddling through a world where every engine repeatedly breaks down, including that of the train. In a tunnel. Everything is stinking, drunk, excrement-stained, ruptured or collapsed. A prodigious quantity of dead or maimed animals can be seen from the train’s nearly opaque, dirty windows. When the girl witnesses a three-legged dog trailing a trickle of blood outside one station, I saw the pattern and found myself laughing. The book had gotten to me.
More seriously, the open wound of the Soviet war with Afghanistan looms in the background. As the girl ponders the taiga (a landscape of sweeping natural beauty) and the human ruin and suffering encroaching on it, we gradually learn she is turning over events in her life to come to a decision.
How might a journey through such a grotesquely broken world affect one’s choices?
This book won a Finlandia Prize, and I suspect the nuanced silence of the girl’s perspective had something to do with this, as well as the palpable landscape she travels through — she finds petroglyphs in the dark with her fingertips. The novel concludes more rapidly than I would have liked, but a lingering sense of the landscape and enduring survival remains.
Lynette Reini-Grandell studies Finnish folk culture and is the author of “Approaching the Gate.” She lives in Minneapolis.
Compartment No. 6
By: Rosa Liksom, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 181 pages, $16.