I received an advance review copy of this title from Graywolf Press. This title was published in the original Finnish in 2011 and this English version has been translated by Lola Rogers. This is my first contribution to Women in Translation Month which is taking place all during the month of August.
As I first started reading this book I kept wondering why a young Finnish girl would choose to attend university in the Soviet Union during the decade of the 1980’s. But as the plot progresses it is revealed that the girl, who is never given a name, falls in love with Moscow on a trip with her family. But the Moscow she sees on her trip as a young high school student is the pristine and official one, created and controlled by the government, and is very different than the one the girl encounters as a university student on her trip across the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway. When the girl boards the train she chooses compartment No. 6 because it is quiet and empty but her solitude is soon disrupted by a gruff and garrulous ex-soldier named Vadim.
When the girl boards the train on her way to Mongolia she seems emotionally numb and the sexually explicit and crass stories of her traveling companion don’t appear to penetrate her malaise. The author cleverly emphasizes the girl’s mental aloofness by blurring certain details that we would expect from a main character. As I have already mentioned, she is never given a name and is simply referred to as “the girl” and her speech is never directly quoted anywhere in the text. When Vadim and other characters are speaking, traditional quotations and direct speech are used, but the girl’s thoughts and words are always summed up in the third person. Vadim tells one tale after another of his sexual conquests, fights and outrageous behavior but the girl is too lost in her own world to have the strong reaction to him that one would expect.
As the bleak landscape of the taiga passes her by, the girl reflects back on her time in Moscow as a student where she lived with her boyfriend, Mitka. Her memories are scattered and disjointed and it felt as though I was looking through an old photograph album with her and getting the barest details about her relationship. As she describes her life in Moscow, it appears that she is remembering Mitka with a feeling of bitter sweetness and there is something that has happened with Mitka and his mother that has made her flee Moscow and get as far away from them as possible. There are vague descriptions of Mitka having a severe breakdown and being in a mental institution and the girl’s subsequent relationship with Mitka’s mother. There is also an intriguing story of a violent encounter that the girl and Mitka suffer one night in Moscow. This is another example of the details of the text being blurred and leaving the reader to speculate about the girl’s life in Moscow.
As the girl and Vadim get farther along on their journey, they form an unusual bond of what I would loosely call friendship. Vadim is a man who likes to be the center of attention and tell outrageous stories and the girl listens to him. She does flee their compartment when he suggests that they have sex, but she always comes back. Vadim performs small tasks for the girl like brewing her tea and sharing his meals and arranging for places to stay when the train stops overnight. Even though Vadim has had a rough life and has a proclivity towards violence, even with his own wife, he is patient and protective of this strange Finnish girl. The culminating moment in their relationship is when they reach Mongolia and she is having a hard time dealing with her government appointed tour guide. She seeks out Vadim, cries on his shoulder and he sets about making everything right for her.
The two most interesting aspects of this book are the relationship that develops between the girl and Vadim and the amazingly detailed descriptions of the Soviet landscape from one end of that country to another during the late 1980’s. Even though it is spring, the forests and landscapes which the train passes are empty, untouched, snow-covered and bleak. By contrast, the Soviet towns at which the train makes stops are industrial, dirty, and crowded and in shambles. The people of these towns are trying to squeeze out an existence in whatever ways they are able. The shelves of department stores are bare and the people are forced to bargain for their vodka on the black market. One of the most peculiar descriptions are those of the restaurants they visit which have “closed” signs on the doors but are crowded with people and the girl enters anyway. This brings us back to the conclusion that nothing is as it seems in this brutal, cold and bizarre place that is the Soviet Union. The author must have visited this place at some point in order to capture such vivid details in her writing.
For those interested in post-Soviet literature then Liksom’s book is a must-read. Looking at this strange place through the eyes of a foreigner provides a unique lens for us to get another glimpse at the last days of the Soviet Union before it dissolves into oblivion.
About the Author:
Rosa Liksom was born in a village of eight houses in Lapland, Finland, where her parents were reindeer breeders and farmers. She spent her youth traveling Europe, living as a squatter and in communes. She paints, makes films, and writes in Helsinki.