Back in the USSR

3 October 2011 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Rosa Liksom’s novel Hytti nro 6 (‘Compartment no 6’, WSOY, 2011). Review by Mervi Kantokorpi

Moscow hunched itself in the dry, frosty March night, protecting itself from the touch of the icy red sun as it set. The girl entered the train’s last sleeping carriage, found her compartment, compartment number six, and breathed deeply. There were four beds in the compartment, the upper ones folded agains the wall, while between the beds was a small table, on the table a white table cloth and a plastic flower vase containing a bunch of pink paper carnations, faded by time; the shelf above the end of the bed was full of large, untidily secured parcels. The girl shoved her modest old suitcase, the one she had got from Zahar, into the metal luggage space under the hard, narrow bed; her small backpack she threw on the bed. When the station bell sounded for the first time, the girl went to stand by the corridor window. She breathed in the scent of the train, iron, coal-dust, the smells left behind by dozens of cities and thousands of people. Travellers and those who had come to see them off pushed past her, shoving her with their cases and parcels. The girl touched the cold window with her hand and looked at the platform. This train would take her through villages inhabited by deportees, through the open and closed towns of Siberia to the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator.

The man was sitting on his bed. On top of his white business shirt he wore a checked shirt that hung open. Under the folds of the white shirt there glimmered a sweaty, muscular belly. The man took a small orange from the table and began to peel it roughly. Once he had eaten the fruit he pulled out a much-fingered newspaper and said from behind it in an irritable tone: ‘Young people are restless. No patience at all. All that dashing hither and thither. Everything goes at its own pace, time is only time.’

 The man furrowed his brow and sighed.

‘Look here. All you see is an old geezer whose melancholy soul is filled with a dull peace. Even his heart doesn’t beat with emotion, but through sheer force of habit. No more crazy tricks, not even suffering. Nothing but boredom.’

The girl remembered her last night in Moscow: how she had rushed from one place to another, run down the long staircase to the metro and taken the Red line to the Lenin Library, run along its tiled floors through the museum-like hall and the labyrinths lined with bronze statues and climbed, via many steep escalators, up the Blue Line, taken the train past the Arbat, got off at a church-like station decorated with mosaics whose name she no longer remembered, and how she had, under the concrete arch, realised that she had forgotten her shoulder bag containing her train tickets and vouchers, and turned back, jumped from one metro train to another, gone through the stations where she had changed lines and, to her great amazement, found her bag at the Lenin Library stop; it was waiting for her in the middle of the window of the metro attendant’s kiosk.

The train braked and stopped. Soon the engine began to jerk forward and the train set off again. And braked. And stopped. The engine pondered for a second, whistled cheerfully and moved decisively. The wheels jingled apologetically for a second but soon the train, determined, was speeding onward. The sun bounced back off the other shore of the snowfield, lighting up the earth and sky for a second and then disappearing beyond a limitless bog landscape. The man examined the girl with a sharp gaze.

‘Your soul is filled with nothing but dreams? Well, there’s no law against dreaming. Even Mad Ivan lies on the bench by the stove and dreams of a moving oven and of a table that lays itself, but this life, which people wiser than me call a transitory prison, is here and now. Tomorrow death may come and grab you by the balls.’

The man’s narrow face shone with self-satisfaction. He had a fine mouth, narrow lips and a small scar on his chin like Trotsky’s.

‘Death can’t be any worse than life.’

The man closed his eyes and pressed his lips tightly together. Then he began to hum.

‘Don’t be afraid of death, my girl, while you’re alive, for then it does not yet exist. And when you are dead, it no longer exists.’

The girl was woken by the morning light. The man offered her a glass of tea and, putting a large lump of sugar in his mouth, stirred it with a paper-thin spoon, blowing for a long time before slurping the drink. The girl looked out at the landscape on the other side of the window for a moment. The sky was too blue, the snow too bright. In the shadow of a lonely rowan tree stood a small, blue cabin. In its garden stood an old man holding an iron handspike.

‘I belong to the socialist camp, people like you no. People like me have attended all the camps: Pioneer camps, military camps, holiday camps and forced labour camps. My first forced spade was put in my hand when I was just a boy, when I took possession of a couple of cement mixers and carried them off from the factory. I knew I’d be put in chains, but all the same… The worst part was before they caught me, waiting for it. It’s like spinning in the devil’s cogwheel. When the worst has happened you just think that this is part of life. If only you didn’t die of hunger or dropsy. The main thing I remember about it all is the vile smell of rotting fish.’

The frost-dimmed glimmer coloured the icy covering of a snake-like little stream gold. Around the thickets that grew on its banks rose a thick, smoke-like fog. The frosty willow stands stretched slenderly toward the brightly shimmering violet sky. A white-flanked deer ran out of the fog. Its little tail shook.

‘My son is a complete renegade by nature. His heroes should have been Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and General Karbishev, who the Nazis liquidated. But no. He dreamed of the followers of Yazov and is planning to move to West Germany soon as he can save, from his pay as a jobber’s errand-boy, enough dollars to buy a foreign passport.’

The man seemed to collapse. A deep silence descended on the compartment.

‘I wouldn’t move to the other side even if they paid me a thousand dollars. It would be the same as moving a caged bird from one cage to another. I love this country. America is a dungheap that God’s turned his back on.’

The sun swung up to the level of the merry, forested landscape. The compartment’s melancholy evaporated.

‘At home in Moscow I read the newspaper aloud to Katinka and in Ulan Bator to my workmates. Is it OK if I read? It would be a comfort to me. Even just a little bit.’

The girl nodded.

‘Pile-up on the Moscow ring-road – five dead and twenty maimed, a coalmine exploded in the Ukraine – three hundred dead, an oil-pipe failed in Chelyabinsk – one thousand five hundred reindeer drowned in oil, and then a submarine sank in the Arctic Sea – seventy-one soldiers dead, a boiler popped in an old people’s home – one hundred and twenty seven dead, a radiator split in a children’s nursery – forty four children boiled alive, a passenger ship sank in the Black Sea – two hundred and six passengers drowned, a chemicals factory made its workforce redundant – an entire town was wiped off the map, a power station failed in Karelia – thirteen villages sank beneath the waves and seven hundred people were drowned, if an atomic power station tumbles down, a million people will die of radiation sickness.’

The man stopped reading and waited.

He straightened his back, turned the page and breathed in.

‘Soviet pilots lost five cruise missiles on a test flight in Sahalin. It really does say that here.’

The train crawled forward as if apologetically. Against the milk-white sky, the glowing full sun brightened the clean slow. This continued for a couple of hours; then the vainglorious sun was covered for a moment by black darkness. Siberia disappeared totally beyond the window, but slipped back into view again before anyone noticed. The wooden wall of forest grew black and frightening by the side of the track. When it ended, a broad view far away to the river opened up. On the open expanse of snow stood three houses, in front of them a smoke sauna gushing with black smoke. Outside the sauna, in the middle of a cloud of steam, stood a naked, stout, rubicund woman in bare feet. The man offered the girl some Pushkin chocolate. It was dark and fiery.

The man glanced out of the window and caught a glimpse of the woman.

‘The pattern is crap, but it’s well-sewn.’

The girl doodled for a long time before drawing, on her sketchpad, a Siberian village in the midst of an endless landscape. The man stared at the girl, his mouth slightly ajar.

‘There was a man called Kolya who had a joke that he was always telling: in the army lads like us grew iron jaws, iron cheeks and an iron will. But the welded seams were so well botched that when I got out of the army my frame broke so badly that the only solution was a metre and a half of earth.’

The man went on laughing, but to himself, and had to wipe his damp eyes on his shirtsleeves. He knelt on the floor, took his wrinkled newspaper out from under his bed, folded it neatly and slipped it under his mattress.

‘Another bloke called Kolya, whose dreams hadn’t been realised, painted in white letters against a red background the question: What’s keeping the happy future? He took this placard and went and stood with it in Red Square. He was there for three minutes before a military police car arrived and took Kolya with it. He was sentenced to twenty-five years, the same amount that our forefathers served in the army. And he lost his citizen’s rights for five years. What’s keeping the happy future! Even the Red Square’s pigeons laughed at that!’

The fire-red afternoon sun spread across the wind-whipped sky. Enormous scraps of sleet fell behind the sun. The girl was looking for something in her backpack; the man was laying the table for their evening meal. They ate slowly and quietly, drinking well-brewed tea: black, Indian Elephant tea that the girl had bought in the foreign exchange shop. After the meal, the man would have liked to chat, but the girl wanted to be quiet. The man took a knife from under his pillow and began to scratch the back of his ear with it. The girl rested with her eyes shut. In this way they travelled through the whole dusky night, sleeping and waking in their own rhythm.

The boggy landscape gradually changed to a flat, even terrain: ruined stone foundations buried under the Siberian snow, collapsed wells, bird nesting boxes hanging from birch branches, villages where the dead windows of abandoned houses stared at the train. The caterpillar lorry of the local dairy centre had sunk into a snowdrift; in the field a horse floundered. Its back was as sway as an old sofa. It pulled behind it a hayrack where, instead of hay, there balanced a couple of buzzards, stiff with cold, tied together by the legs.

‘My little friend, do you know what day it is today? It’s cosmonautry day! Not cosmonaut’s day, you see. And that is not all. Today is both cosmonautry day and the ascension day of our deceased great leader, today, the fifth of April. WE all remember that on the fifth of April fifty-three, oh no it was the fifth of March, the strong heart of the great driver of the train of history, Generalissimus Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin made such a strong protest that an hour later the funeral mechanism was in full swing. Joseph Vissarionovich was a man of such terror and steely wisdom that he is still frightening. Now girl, let us celebrate the death of Stalin, even if it is a month late.’

The man began to rummage furiously in his bag. As he rummaged, he calmed himself.

‘I’m sure I’ll find it, I’m sure I’ll find it. A vodka bottle isn’t like a needle that can get lost in a haystack.’

The bottle was not to be found in the bag, but under the mattress.

The man splashed vodka generously into both tea glasses, pushed one over to the girl and raised his own.

‘Let us raise a glass to cosmonautry.’

The man refilled his glass.

‘The next glass is to our compartment’s magnificent young woman and other Finnish mummy-like female figures. A glass to beauty.’

He refilled his glass and set his features in official Soviet mode.

‘Let us raise the next glass to the disputed great figure of world history, the deceased great leader of the Soviet Union, its iron father, the postal robber of Tiflis, the Jew of Georgia and the king of throat-cutters, Joseph Vissarionovich.’

The man drained his glass, bit off a piece of black bread and filled his glass again.

‘Now let us raise our glass once again and it rises anew to the honour of the steel man. Thanks to Joseph Vissarionovich for making the Soviet Union into a strong industrial great power, for sustaining the belief in a better tomorrow and for the gradual relief of human suffering. A stick in the eye for remembering the past, and two for forgetting it…. A glass, too, to General Zhukov, the king of Berlin. Without him the Nazis would have turned Moscow into an illuminated reservoir and purged the globe of Slavs and other unhygienic races, including the Finns.’

The man drained his glass and splashed another drop of vodka into it.

‘The Jews poured poison into the Great Leader’s mouth, and even though I hate the Jews, I thank them for that fine gesture.’

The man drained his glass to the end and grimaced lightly at the window.

‘I remember this murderer and peasant-basher’s death very well. I was in year three at school with Petya. Primary school number five, there was no one or four. One had collapsed in the middle of a school day and construction of four had been left half done. One morning when we went to school, Valentina Zaitseva said that the father of all nations had fallen ill. That piece of information did not exactly touch a child’s mind. The following morning the teacher told us that the Generalissimus was lying unconscious and that the doctors said there was very little hope. So what, we went on playing. On the third morning the teacher sobbed that now the father was dead. Some bright spark asked what he died of. The teacher said that if you keep too strong a hold on life, your breath stops moving and you can die of suffocation…. Me and Petya walked home from school arm in arm, the factory whistles sounded as if in a naval emergency, some men were crying and others smiling in the streets. At home grandfather looked somehow peculiar, naked and strange. I gazed at him for a long time before I realised that the bushy southern moustache had disappeared from above his swollen lips. Now a new life begins, grandfather said, handing us some pretzels. Grandfather was a party member and one of his favourite sayings was that during Stalin’s time this was, for Communists, the most dangerous and most unhealthy place to live.’

The man rubbed his chin for a moment.

‘There are thousands upon thousands of truths. Every bloke has his own. How many times have I cursed this country, but what would I be without it. I love this country.’

The penetrating smell of paraffin hung in the air of the compartment. It came from the full vodka glass which trembled on the table in time with the rattling of the train. The girl moved it away. The man followed the shaking glass with his eyes.

‘Foreigner, you will offend me deeply if you will not drink with me.’

The man bit off a piece of pickled cucumber and stared at the girl, a sharp expression on his face. The girl glowered at the man and then turned her gaze to the floor.

‘Mum always gave me vodka to drink when I was ill. I got used to the taste of vodka when I was a baby. I don’t drink because I’m unhappy or because I want to be even unhappier, but because the serpent within me is always calling for more vodka.’

They sat in thought without looking at each other. The girl thought about her father and about the day when she had told him she was going to Moscow to study. Her father had gazed at her for a long time with a frightened expression on his face and then a tear had run down his cheek. Her father had drunk himself silly, barricaded himself in his Lada and demanded to drive his daughter to the station….

The train jumped violently on the points and stopped as if hitting a wall. They were in Atshinsk. Arisa, the train attendant, shouted that the train would stop for a couple of hours. The man did not wish to go out; all that would happen in the fresh air would be that his fine intoxication would evaporate.

The girl jumped on to the platform and headed toward the centre, which was dozing through its evening activities. She walked along a lifeless avenue to the town centre. A heavy sleet was falling. The town was dark and shapeless, damp and silver-grey, dishevelled clouds hung over the colourful houses, a white moon shone through the curly carpet of clouds. The girl stopped to look in the window of a grocer’s shop. It could have been built by Rodchenko; packets of vermicelli dashed toward the sky like bolts of lightning. The girl felt something warm on her foot. A small mongrel stray dog had peed on her shoe.

The dog looked at the girl warmly with its button eyes, gave a bark and showed its gold canines. It took a couple of steps, stopped, and stared at the girl. The girl realised that the dog wanted her to go with it.

They walked along the deserted street. The girl could not hear the sound of her own steps, although the sleet changed rapidly to snow, which wandered lazily toward the Petrovskiye avenue, turned along a narrow side road and, after reaching the baker’s corner, lost its force and dried away. The frost tightened its grip. The dog stopped and stood by a cellar window. The window opened and from within came a husky voice.

‘How many?’

The girl thought for a moment.

‘Two? Give Sharik a three-rouble note.’

The girl rummaged in her pocket for a note and, after a moment’s thought, gave it to the dog. The dog snapped it up and disappeared through the window. Soon two unlabelled bottles of moonshine appeared on the window sill. The girl took the bottles, thanked the emptiness and walked along the ringing snowy tarmac back to the train. In the train she gave the bottles to the astonished man.

Humming, the man put the bottles into a special vodka pocket in his food bag and fell asleep. After sleeping off the worst of his intoxication, he began to set the table for supper.

When they had enjoyed a long and lazy meal, the man opened the compartment door.

‘Let’s let the world in.’….

When the girl stepped into her compartment, the man was sitting on his bed wearing a pair of army long-johns, filing his toenails.

The girl offered the man a pile of newspapers that smelled of petrol. The man said the train would not be continuing on its journey until morning. This piece of information did not surprise the girl.

She sat for a long time on her bed, smiling. She looked at the man. The man’s gaze was tired and dull, but even that seemed homely to the girl.

The clouds sailed across the darkening sky, bumping into one another. Finally night rolled, heavy and peaceful, over the train.

 Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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