When they meet, more like run into each other, on the Trans-Siberian just past Krasnoyarsk, Aliocha and Hélène are both trying to escape: he from the draft, she from a boyfriend. Aliocha, hardly more than a boy, is in a group of conscripts being sent to camp in Siberia; intending to desert, he tries and fails to sneak off the train at Krasnoyarsk. The rather more mature Hélène is fleeing Anton, her Russian lover whom she had followed “all the way to Siberia, on the banks of the Yenisey and right to the Divnogorsk dam, which he was in charge of now”.
Aliocha’s motivation is clear; life in camp will be hell:
at the end of the rails, there will be the barracks and the diedovchina, the hazing, and once he’s there, if the second-year conscripts burn his dick with cigarettes, if they make him lick the toilets, deprive him of sleep or fuck him up the ass, no one will be able to do anything to help …
and he has already been beaten up by fellow conscripts on the train.
Hélène’s motivation is less evident. She just picks up and decamps east towards Vladivostok, a round-about way of getting back to Paris. Aliocha takes refuge in her first-class cabin. They communicate as best they can, through sign-language and about a half-dozen words of Russian.
The timely availability of a novel that deals with the brutal life faced by Russian conscripts might be seen as commentary on the War in Ukraine, but the original French version of Maylis de Kerangal’s Eastbound dates from 2012. And 127 not-very-long pages (the work clocks in at just over 20,000 words), it is more novella than novel. An exercise in style, the work is taught, minimalist and moody. Not having many words to spare, de Kerangal chooses hers with care. We meet Hélène, for example,
while she was waiting for Anton in a parking lot beside the dam, the windshield of the car fogged up on the inside by her own carbon dioxide and clouded on the outside by the thousands of microscopic droplets ripped from the mist and projected against her car.
Passages like these are almost cinematic in their intensity; Eastbound would, indeed, make an excellent film. There is considerable contrast in the book between what is described in detail, such as passing Lake Baikal, while there is next to nothing about the two protagonists: we know hardly more about them than they know about each other. Elsewhere, the words just tumble out, in sentences more than a page long:
She has a tragic and patchy image of Russia, a jumbled montage involving the fatal fall of a baby carriage down a monumental staircase in Odessa, the firebrand in the eyes of Michel Strogoff, the gymnast Elena Mukhina spinning on the uneven bars, the fevered face of Lenin as he addresses the crowd, the Soviet Union flag at the top of the Reichstag, doctored photos, Brezhnev’s eyebrows and Solzhenitsyn’s beard, La Mouette at the Odéon cinema one spring night, thousands of prisoners digging a canal between the Baltic and the White Sea, Nureyev leaping across the border in an airport, a parade of tanks on the Red Square and decorated tunics glimpsed between flakes of snow, the dusha, the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, queues in front of stores seen on the news, large women swathed in scarves, the Sakharovs back to Moscow after years of internal exile in Gorki, spies traded on bridges at night, the birthmark on Gorbachev’s forehead, Soyuz, Yeltsin drunk, the smile of a young billionaire as he buys the Chelsea Football Club, top models, the mafia, murders, the hold-up of the entire country, the Chechen nightmare, Putin’s face, the lobby of the building where Anna Politkovskaya lived, the verdigris skin tone of Viktor Yushchenko, the war again, Ossetia and Georgia, the family of old believers found on the taiga after seventy years; she has never seen the Red Square, the bulbous domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral or the frozen Volga, doesn’t speak a word of Russian, but she’s read Anna Karenina three times, hums the melody of Doctor Zhivago and still knows the taiga, the tundra, and the steppe by heart, geography-textbook definitions which she recites to him word for word. They are in love.
Translator Jessica Moore has done a superb job of rendering the tone, pacing, rhythm and flow of the original (bits and pieces of which are available on-line) in a stylish English. Slightly befuddling is the use of a not-entirely traditional (and perhaps French-derived) transliteration of the much of the Russian: Aliocha would be more recognizable as Alyosha; frantsouzkaïa (French) more more normally be frantsuzskaya.
Eastbound is a spare, beautifully-written novel. It will inevitably be seen as anti-war commentary on Russia’s army, and perhaps it is, but it is also a small work of art.