There are so many trains in Russian fiction—and history—that I suppose it’s not at all odd that I read, absolutely unintentionally, two short novels in a row with strong railroad themes. Come to think of it, both pieces also involve orphans, another common theme in Russian novels. The novellas: Iurii Buida’s Дон Домино, known in Oliver Ready’s English translation (from which I’ve quoted below using Amazon’s Look Inside! feature) as The Zero Train, and Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective).
Beyond the common importance of railroad, difficult family situations, and social changes, however, the novellas couldn’t be more different. Buida’s Zero Train, a Booker Prize finalist in 1994, is an elegantly composed metaphysical portrayal of people whose lives are connected by a mysterious train that passes through their town each day. Despite allegory, the air of mystery, and odd happenings, I’d say The Zero Train’s tracks end before the Fantasy station. Astaf’ev’s Detective, dated 1986, tells of a policeman-cum-writer who’s retired because of job-related injuries; Detective felt like an uneasy blend of village prose (деревенская проза) and чернуха, that crushing naturalism I so often seem to read.
Descriptions of character and plot don’t go very far in explaining why The Zero Train appealed to me so much: in many ways, the railroad life of its main character, Ivan Ardabyev, known as Don Domino because he loves playing dominoes, isn’t especially remarkable. It’s the strange, punctual Train No. 0 that mattered most here, linking disparate characters who work on or watch the railroad and acting almost like a mirror as they wonder what the train carries and where it goes. Security forces are a strong presence: Buida gives Lavrentii Beria himself some ink and Ardabyev, whose parents were enemies of the people, has dealings with a security officer.
Ardabyev doesn’t just lack parents: he’s also told has no past, no present, no beliefs in God or devils. He has only the Zero Train, a conveyance with a nihilistic number that Ardabuev himself resembles. Who are you if your parents have been x-ed out of existence under horrible circumstances and you have little real need for meaning? Ardabyev asks Fira, one of the women in his life, “А зачем он нужен, смысл?... Смысл только в нас, в тебе и во мне, и если мы так думаем, нет ничего другого, и смерти нет.” (“What do we need meaning for?... The only meaning is in us, in you and in me, and if that’s what we think then there’s nothing else, not even death.”)
Of course the biggest mystery of The Zero Train is the meaning of the train itself. The train’s odd existence represents life to the town’s residents and their curiosity about what’s at the end of the line reminds of curiosity about death and the afterlife. As Fira says to Ivan, “Что-то там есть. Иначе зачем же тогда Линия, зачем нулевой, зачем мы, зачем все это?” (“There must be something there. Or else what’s the Line for, the Zero? What are we doing here? What’s it all for?”) Ivan can only say he doesn’t know, the train reminds him of life. The ending of The Zero Train is ambiguous, as Oliver Ready notes in his afterword, and I think that’s part of my enjoyment of the book: Buida finds a nice balance of allegory, history, and reality, and has the good sense to write a short novel that reveals just enough about his people and his train to spin a wonderfully heady tale. I’m looking forward to reading more Buida.
By contrast, Astaf’ev’s Detective felt unbalanced and, well, sad, not just because the title character has had a difficult life and career but because I got the impression Astaf’ev couldn’t quite decide whether to write about life around a train station, life in the country, the work life of a policeman, or the personal life of a policeman. The problem isn’t one of space—all that could fit in one novella—but I don’t think Astaf’ev succeeds in linking his diverse people and stories into a novel(la), though everything’s a little too connected to be a collection of linked stories.
There’s some gritty material—for me, a crime committed with a pitchfork in a veal barn is the most vivid scene from the book—and there are lots of social and moral aspects of Soviet life about which to feel sad and mournful along with Soshnin, Astaf’ev’s title figure. The Sad Detective doesn’t just feel unfinished or underdone, it also feels like a piece a bit ahead of its time. Much of what Detective covers reminds me of later chernukha novels that contain similarly harsh realities but more cogent structures. I feel particularly mournful about The Sad Detective because I thought Astaf’ev’s Lyudochka was very good (previous post).
Up next: Dmitrii Danilov’s Горизонтельное положение (Horizontal Position), which I found oddly enjoyable.
Disclosures: Just the usual. I should add that Oliver Ready, whom I enjoyed meeting and hearing speak at the London Book Fair, also translated a collection of Buida stories, The Prussian Bride, for which Oliver won the Rossica Prize in 2005.
Image credit: Czech railroad track photo from tabery, via sxc.hu.