Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts.
In Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6, first published in Finnish and now translated by Lola Rogers and available from Graywolf Press, this sentence, which is repeated several times, comes to seem like a refrain—or, better, a hopeful affirmation. The setting is the USSR in the mid 1980s, and a young Finnish woman, referred to only as “the girl,” has boarded a train in Moscow that is bound for Mongolia, fleeing a relationship that has taken several jagged turns. She’s hoping for solitude, but just before the train departs, a garrulous Russian named Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov boards the train and joins her in her compartment. Soon, he’s filling the space between them with stories of sexual conquest and marital misery, exhorting the girl to drink vodka with him, and pleading with her to grant him a sexual favor or two—“So how about some screwing?” he asks rather optimistically at one point, to which she responds with silence.
Vadim, whose presence is at various times ominous, leering, comic, and tragic, is in constant motion (when he’s not passed-out drunk), but the girl seems immobile, stuck. He rambles and swears and drinks; she stares out at the passing Russian countryside in silence and thinks about Mitka, the man she left behind in Moscow. Liksom balances the girl’s relationship with Vadim on a razor’s edge, and much of the novel’s immediate suspense comes from the sense that the situation could become violent at any moment. But however menacing Vadim might seem, he isn’t evil, and watching the way their relationship evolves is one of this novel’s many pleasures.
The vodka-fueled gusto that Vadim brings to the narrative is welcome, especially in counterpoint to the girl’s stoicism. But the story belongs to her, and she’s a fascinating and complex character. Her relationship with Mitka has caused her significant pain—enough, it would seem, to make her shut her emotions down. Liksom reflects this in the prose; rarely are the girl’s emotions directly stated. Though the girl frequently sinks into her memories, even those that should bring joy are rendered with little affect. Here she is revisiting a memory:
She thought about Mitka, his long eyelashes, his perfect toes. The day they ran through the freezing rain to the Armaments Museum and hid inside a tank and the museum guard found them after the place had closed. They ended up sitting up all night with him in the guard’s booth clinking champagne glasses.
Nowhere in this passage does she think about how this made her feel, though it seems to contain at least a trace of joy.
The girl is also removed from her own voice. Her speech is only reported indirectly, and understood through the reactions of other characters. It is jarring to realize, a few pages in, that while Vadim’s monologues pour across the pages, we have yet to hear the girl speak, and perhaps never will. Liksom seems to be making a multilayered decision here that enacts, in the prose, both the girl’s distance from her self and the way women’s voices go unheard or ignored. And the fact that the girl is unnamed adds to this: her identity has been obscured both by her own pain and by the world she lives in. Vadim, for his part, drives the latter point home. A short while into their time together, he bluntly asks the girl if she’s a whore.
Liksom’s writing moves into a different register when it comes to describing the landscape, the decaying Russian cities, and the people and animals who inhabit them. These rapturous descriptions, filled with minutely observed details, mix together the beautiful and the banal, the ugly and the sublime. They are shot through with a sense of loss, and yet always seem to contain a hopeful motion. A representative passage comes as the train approaches Sverdlovsky:
The soft, frozen winter dusk beckoned along the sides streets of the town, its parks and squares. A local train squeaked on the next track. A wave of people arriving from the suburbs flooded into the small station from an arriving train, a full moon reflected orange from drifts of snow yellowed with dogs’ piss. The stars in the sky were like a vast array of portals to another reality, the same stars as in Moscow, but different.
Sometimes, Liksom arrives at images that verge on the surreal: “The frost-heaved road trickled through the valley like a lazy river. A one-winged crow was falling through rainbow-flaming sky.” Other times, the descriptions are almost fanatically dedicated to cataloging every detail of an impoverished and decaying Russia that, in this novel, is limping along, wounded by the Cold War and the war in Afghanistan, but still in motion, like everything else. At their best, these passages have the momentum of a train thundering through a frozen landscape:
And so the Moscow winter, the steel-blue city warmed by the evening sun, is left behind. Moscow — the city lights and the noise of traffic, the circle dance of churches, the teenage boy and the beautiful dark-haired woman with one side of her face swollen — are all left behind. The sparse neon signs against a morose, pitch-black sky, the ruby stars on the towers of the Kremlin, the waxed bodies of the good Lenin and the bad Stalin, and Mitka, are left behind. Red Square and the Lenin Mausoleum, the lacy iron railings of the spiral staircase at the GUM department store, the Intourist international hotel with its foreign currency bar, its floor staff commandeering living space in the cleaning cupboards and looking for Western make-up, perfume, and electric razors, are left behind.
The images are wonderfully sharp, but we understand that they are reflections of the girl’s thought as much as they are inventories of the world surrounding her. The baggage has piled up, and she is leaving it behind. But however much her experience with Mitka has wounded her, she is still an acute observer of life—even if, or perhaps because, she feels herself to be removed from it.
Late in the novel, she thinks about how “joys are forgotten but sorrows and stupidity never are.” It’s a rare moment, and even here, she’s several layers removed from her own emotions. But it’s a start, and, with the unlikely help of her crude traveling companion, she will perhaps learn how to be in motion again, along with the snow, the water, the air, the trees, the clouds, the wind, the cities, the villages, the people, and most important, her thoughts.
Author photograph © Pekka Mustonen.