The train

Issue 1/1995 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Koe (‘The experiment’; WSOY, 1994). Interview by Tuva Korrström

In the morning a wild rose tapped beseechingly at the window, the wind sighed in the shaft of the chimney, the entire house creaked, pregnant with so great a longing that they had to awaken.

And as soon as they began to speak to each other, the house settled.

‘I should like to see the train,’ Sari said.

‘Why?’

‘Because that is the reason why I am here.’

‘I didn’t plan it like that,’ Kari said.

‘Didn’t you?’ Sari asked in astonishment, and sat up on the side of the bed. ‘Didn’t you?’ she repeated in disbelief.

‘No, really,’ Kari answered, also getting up on the side of the bed. ‘I fell in love with you.’

‘Isn’t there a train, then, after all?’ Sari asked, disappointed.

‘Yes, but no experimenter.’

‘I want to make that journey, that’s why I’m here.’

That morning was followed by new milk-soft mornings. The brightest ray of sun was a little blunted, the glitter of the sea was a little dimmer and more golden and gentler, and the nights became blacker and sweeter.

Gradually the rowan-berries ripened. August was at its end; there were no more heat-waves, but from time to time summer still came to greet them briefly them with its childlike brightness.

On a few nights they bathed in the sauna and swam in the red, pungent sea, but more and more often the north wind kept them in the house.

Then the first rains began. At first, they rattled charmingly and entertainingly on the roof, then they began to patter more monotonously, and finally their constant drumming, their indifferent racket, depressed them both.

Then Sari began to speak of the train once more. ‘When can I go on your train?’ she asked. ‘I’m a passenger on your train” she said, and pressed her face, with its appley glow, against Kari’s.

‘I’ll never let you on it. The winds and the rains and the winters will soon destroy it.’

‘I want to see it, at least,’ Sari insisted.

The rain was lashing the cliffs furiously when they went into the forest together. They were holding a large raincoat over them, but abandoned it when the wind blew all the water that had gathered in it into their faces. The discarded coat rolled down the cliff and into the sea, its sleeves waving helplessly in the air.

In this way they came to the train’s departure point, at the centre of the island, by a great cleft in the rock. The place was surrounded by the island’s tallest pines, which swayed and sighed in the rain. The train stood in the shelter of some junipers under an insignificant canopy and looked so helpless that it stirred all Sari’s best memories of childhood.

‘This is a drama that no longer has anything to do with us,’ Kari said.

‘But it’s yours.’

‘I used all the information, imagination and technology that I was able to lay my hands on to make this circus, but you must understand me, you must understand that I did it to find the road, the way to find in Man, even for just a moment, a divine spark. My aim was not to control, but to understand. It was a sincere attempt, Sari, please believe me. It was a sincere attempt to find the heart of living matter, its purest and most beautiful radiant centre.’

Sari smiled and suddenly sat down on the first bench of the train. It smelled of paint and linseed oil, was a little hard and rough and reminded her of the amusement parks of her childhood. The train jerked into motion, creaking.

‘Get down!’ Kari shouted. But Sari laughed and did not budge. The train slid forward under the trees, dripping with water, and slipped through a fragrant, damp stand of juniper. Overcome with horror, Kari ran after it. ‘Jump out! At once! Now!’ he roared. ‘You can’t get out of the cave! Sari! You can’t get out of the train! Jump out now!’ Before the train disappeared into the cleft in the rock, Kari jumped in, next to Sari.

 

Behind the cleft in the rock there opened up a half-quarried cave, partially faced with whitewashed cement, which was immediately filled with artificial light.

Farther off a knocking and throbbing could be heard as a great electrical system was switched on.

The first sephiroth rose to her feet, shuddering, from her throne-like chair. Electric cables curled from her arms and ankles, gleaming like golden filaments in the beam of the floodlight. She turned, smiling, her face gleaming, to welcome the approaching train.

The material of which she was made was so soft, so plastic and feminine that it made her look like a woman, although she did not represent any gender. She took her first steps a little uncertainly, as if she were just learning to walk, staggered once, but rapidly regained her balance.

She was dressed in a dancer’s costume, in vivid striped stretch trousers, red leg­ warmers, exercise slippers and a skin-tight, shiny shirt. She took up a position in front of the train, her legs apart.

Sweet music flooded the air from somewhere, and she made her first move. It was a very long, fast and difficult pirouette, although it seemed to be born of nothing, without effort or concentration or skill. It was simply a perfect movement created by a machine.

When she had given proof of her divine infallibility, she began to dance. The floodlights followed her movements, and on the walls of the cave was inscribed, in outline, like a stage-set, the image of a misty meadow landscape, above which she seemed to sway effortlessly, like an elf.

Sari watched the performance with enthusiasm: it had exceeded all her expectations.

The music grew louder and the performer’s gestures became more dramatic and impressive; she was dancing to well-known ballet compositions, but giving them extra dimensions through capacities that went beyond those of the human body. She sometimes took flight for a number of seconds, danced on her forefingers or exchanged one of her legs for a moment with one of her arms.

The train began to slow down justt as the dancer’s gestures were becoming wilder and somehow more angular.

Her healthful face was still smiling with equal intensity, but her dance now seemed to be at an end, it was as if it had flowed out of her body, and she took a couple of jerking steps in this direction and that, pummelled the wall with her fists a few times, and then approached the train, tapped it with the point of her shoe as if testing it, and then began effortlessly to toss her legs in the air in aesthetically faultless curves and to kick the train with her giant strength so that its sides cracked open, the slats crashing to the floor.

Sari began to scream, but fell silent when the dancer, after an extraordinary series of complicated movements, hit her in the face. The doll continued her hitting until the blood flowed freely from the girl’s lips and nose, and went on hitting when she had fallen senseless on to her knees from the bench.

Then she grabbed Kari and battered his face and chest with her fists. When one of his ribs cracked, Kari slipped, screaming, from his bench, spitting blood.

Thus, on their knees, they journeyed forward in the train to the next cave, which was so small that the train could hardly turn round.

In the corner, in his electric chair, sat a sephiroth clad in evening dress. He raised both his hands in greeting when the train had brought them inside and the floodlights had blazed on. A good-natured grin flickered across his face, he stood up, ran his hand through his hair and waited politely until his guests had struggled laboriously into a sitting position. Because he himself had no hearing, although he was the sephiroth of the domain of hearing, he could not understand his guests’ groans and whimpers, and the contented, cheerful expression did not fade from his face.

He took a white handkerchief from his pocket, waved it once, and rose-petals began to fall from the ceiling. The doll opened his beautifully shaped mouth with its full lips and began to sing, his nostrils quivering.

He sang the most radiant of sacred renaissance music, and around him flooded glowing polyphonic nets built of constantly renewed voices, which together rose toward such grand harmony that Sari left off her convulsive sobbing and began to listen. She felt it eased her discomfort a little, cleansed and calmed her mind.

In the midst of the sublimest harmony, the singer pressed one hand dramatically to his chest, the other to his forehead, and let his first operatic aria flow into the air. His body swayed and shook in a storm of emotions, he shook a finger first in one direction, then in another, sometimes reproachfully, sometimes exhausted by jealousy or love. Gradually he sank into the power of ever darker and more sombre passions; the range of his voice broadened and transcended all the borders of human expression.

Now sequences of evermore diverse sounds erupted from his mouth, combinations of trumpets and violins and the barking of a dog, confusions of circular saws, drums, a child’s crying and the tinkling of a harp.

He opened his mouth ever wider: in the end it looked like nothing but a gaping black loudspeaker roaring thunder into the air. At first it resembled the shouting of an entire male-voice choir, but in the end it was the din of an aircraft taking off. Mixed into the overpowering noise was the screaming of a slaughtered pig, explosions, the screeching of brakes, the screaming of children, but the roaring grew louder so that it gradually enveloped the other sounds.

Sari pressed her head to her knees and closed her ears, Kari grasped her tightly and thus, pressed downward, they encountered the moment when the sound lost all the characteristics of sound and became simply a dizzying pressure and pain.

The lights went out and they sat in darkness, in complete silence. The train was motionless, nothing happened.

‘No more,’ Sari faltered, and realised at once that she could not hear her own voice. Then she felt the train jerk once more into motion, but it slipped through the darkness completely soundlessly. When a light that had dawned far away reached them, Sari turned to Karl and shook him furiously. ‘I want out!’ she shouted, so that she could feel her larynx tearing with pain, but neither of them heard a sound. She could see that Kari was speaking fervently, his face twisted with sobs, but could not understand what he was saying. The terror that she had been able so far to keep at bay through her childlike trust now devoured her completely.

She wrenched herself away from the train and tried to run. Kari pulled her back by her clothes, but she tore herself away and fell to the ground, felled by electric shocks. She lay in the darkness, and the whole of her body was shattered by electric shocks. Kari made his way to her side, and dragged her toward the disappearing train. Writhing and semi-unconscious, they reached it and threw themselves back on to their benches.

It carried them toward a dazzlingly beautiful sephiroth bathed in light. She was clothed in a magnificent dress: it was a skilful replica of Elizabeth I’s magical Dress of Eyes, and blossomed all over with eyes decorated with thin eyebrows.

But they were no longer able to look at anything. They turned their heads away in agony and closed their eyes. They did not see how the images projected on to the cobweb-thin gauze glowed and shimmered in intoxicatingly beautiful colours. They did not see the prodigal counterpoint of brilliant paintings, mountain scenes, Japanese gardens, or the sephiroth, which paced lightly beside the train and lifted one gauze after another aside so that the train could dive ever deeper into this delicious cocktail of images.

Although Kari Suurmanen knew that closing their eyes would not help them escape from this sephiroth’s cave, either, he pressed his hands to his face with all his strength.

They did not see the golden rain in the arms of the Danae, or the glittering composition of snow-crystals and leaves and droplets, the graceful curves of a frolicking foal, the endless flow of images, each sweeter than the last. They did not see the rhythmically bending, glistening bodies of boys playing ball on a lawn, or the alluring silkiness of naked women reclining on soft furs, or the heaps of bodies, the mauled corpses, the dismembered children, the entire range of images that people like to offer one another. The gauzes upon which the images shimmered became lighter, brighter, until finally then shone only with bare, pure, dazzling light.

Kari Suurmanen was still covering his face with his hands, although the light penetrated between his fingers and through his eyelids to his eyes. He felt the train slowing down once more and knew what was happening. And when the train stopped, he opened his eyes submissively to meet the gaze of the beautiful sephiroth.

The sephiroth’s eyes, at first fixed and piercing, widened until nothing of her face was visible but two round openings within which was a dazzling light so strong that it blinded them and burned out their retinas.

They felt the motion of the train and the sensed the smell of rock, dust, cement and paint. Deaf and blind, they slipped into each others’ arms and felt each others’ bodies for a moment.

And the train jerked on to its final position.

 

The sephiroth that ruled the domain of sense moved toward them, although they did not hear, did not see it. For this reason it was not necessary for it to be a carefully composed doll, not a personification of any kind; in fact, it was just an unadorned machine. Only the palms of its hands and its fingers were upholstered in that soft, stretchy plastic that was like skin.

It soon arrived at the train, carrying on a tray fruit whose scent reached them, comforting as some good news from somewhere beyond human history, a message of salvation.

Its steady hands massaged their hunched backs, rubbed medicine into their faces.

But because, by now, nothing moved them or terrified them any more, neither did the fact that the machine was pushing the scented, artificial fruits down their throats by force nor that the taste of poisonous matter scorched their mouths and constricted their stomachs; they dribbled like little babies in a state of non-existence, hearing nothing, seeing nothing and finally, when the membranes of their mouths had been burnt away, tasting nothing.

All they had left was their skins, and these, too, the sephiroth took into its possession.

The human-handed machine began slowly by pressing nails into them, which naturally had no great effect. They did not react, either, to electric pulses of fifty milliamperes.

Because they were two senseless lumps of flesh, more sophisticated technology had to be applied to them, and this was indeed the intention. The machine first raised the milliampere level, but achieved only a vague swaying of their bodies.

But after working with some time with other instruments, such as sulphuric acid, scalpels and formalin, it was finally able to wrench cries of pain from those beings.

Kari Suurmanen tried to remember why he was there, why he was being tortured, why his body was identical with suffering, but he could not bring the answer to mind, even though he was sure that an answer existed somewhere.

He did not know who was sprawled beside him, and soon he no longer remembered that there was anyone there.

He sensed distantly that there must be an exit somewhere, somewhere there must be a way of getting out, but he could not remember what it was or whether such a thing might exist.

Then the flame of pain engulfed him.

From time to time he realised he was thinking, although the unknown surrounded him, looting his soul at will.

He drifted, subject to the laws of other universes, in the currents of strange forces, separate, alone, naked. And in those few moments of waking, he turned the pages of an immense picture-book to find the right picture, to find his way back to the right place, the world in which he had originated. But the worlds flowed, varied, shifted, lied. He did not recognise a single one of them, although he knew he was a lodger in all of them.

And in the midst of all his efforts, the unknown fumbled him into its lap, extinguished, lost and forgot him.

 

Suddenly, amid the emptiness, he thought that it was afternoon. The word awoke in him the certainty that there was a place where it was afternoon and where words were used.

 

He knew he must remember some forgotten thing.

 

He knew there was a crevice, a road out, but could not understand what form it took, where it was, where it led.

 

And he knew he could not remember it unless he owned it, unless it was his own. And he stopped turning the pages of the picture-book, torturing his memory, which, with such trifling strength, such thin threads, such arbitrary assumptions, was all that secured him to the world any longer, and he allowed expectant, black oblivion to fall around him.

 

But when oblivion came again, it no longer lost him, for it carried with it its only child,

a face gilded by the sun,

threads gilded by the sun, in a rug knotted with Smyrna knots.

 

Then he returned to the world, easily and quickly, as effortlessly as if he had never been away. He sensed the scent of Thai silk and sweet sweat. He felt the hum of conversation against his cheek.

The room was filled with afternoon twilight. Somnolent dust floated below a lit lamp, it fell on a mahogany table, on a hand-painted plate, on the leaves of a Kaffir lily, on a tall sideboard. Half-closed curtains made the room almost dark.

He held a cushion under his arm, leaned against his grandmother, listening to her and gazing at the patterns in the Arabian rug. He knew he had just been struggling to understand how the repeated figures and patterns related to one another, how two worlds, incompatible, could be seen at once, so that they became three-dimensional.

He remembered that he had just been struggling to solve that riddle, but now, suddenly, he wondered why. For a ray of sunshine, rebounding from the window of the house opposite, lit the rug up, and there was nothing mysterious about it.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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