On the Trans-Siberian express

3 October 2011 | Authors, Reviews

Rosa Liksom. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

A Finnish girl studying archaeology in Moscow finds herself sharing a train compartment with a Russian man on the long journey from Moscow through Siberia to Ulan Bator. The girl travels for weeks to see the region’s ancient rock-paintings; the man’s destination is a big building site. The drama of the enclosed space  is built of two people and two worlds that cannot escape one another.

The story, in Hytti no 6 (‘Compartment number 6’) by Rosa Liksom, develops through small stories and reminiscences as the backgrounds of the girl and the man open up. At the places where the train stops, other people from the steppe and cities of Russia become intertwined with the narrative.

The career of the Lapp writer Rosa Liksom spans more than 25 years and demonstrates a rare ability to master various fields of both writing and the visual arts. In the history of contemporary Finnish prose, her novels and collections of short prose are a fantastic chapter of originally developed Nordic localism and post-modernist world citizenship. Liksom’s first book, short prose, was published in 1985; her work has been translated into 14 languages.

In Hytti no 6 (‘Compartment number 6’, WSOY, 2011), Liksom surprises us once again. The writer pays homage to a tradition reflecting the Russian povest, or long short story. This medium-length prose form became familiar to Finns toward the end of the 19th century, in what was then the Russian-administrated Grand Duchy of Finland, when the Finnish-language newspapers of the period published Russian literature in part-work form. Representatives of this form acquired the name novella only later in the 20th century.

The novel is set in the Soviet Union of the 1980s, the period before perestroika. In her works of the 1980s, Go Moskova Go (in English: Go Moscow Go, 1991) and Väliasema Gagarin (‘Space station Gagarin’), Liksom (the pseudonym of Anni Ylävaara, born 1958) writes about the same places and themes, but in a different, post-modern genre. Palpable in the new story both stylistically and through open references is the world-philosophical seriousness of 19th-century Russian literature, a kind of modern melancholy, which Liksom realises magnificently.

The well-muscled man is a ‘Stakhanovite meat-machine and concrete hero’, brutal, hard-talking and fond of his vodka. Equally terrible is his background: he lived on the street from the age of five and since then has found his university of life going from camp to camp. He tells stories about his countless women and the ‘burnt-out cunt’ of his wife, who has gone through fifteen abortions, as if to pass the time, which makes the girl feel sick. This man both abuses and longs for the same woman.

The girl, on the other hand, is too dry and mummy-like for the man’s taste – which does not prevent him from importuning her. His dull gaze and impudence raise echoes from the girl’s past; his drunken ramblings are too familiar. Her own father is the Finnish version of this foul-mouthed monster.

Why do I love this country, the girl wonders, and the reader wonders the same thing. When they finally reach Ulan Bator, the ancient rock-paintings almost go unvisited – but then she receives unexpected help from her travelling companion.

Only someone like her can overtake the violent system discipline that reaches as far as Mongolia, which is possible to break down by a credible appearance and a sufficient amount of roubles. ‘People are capable of anything if they are forced to do it,’ remarks an energetic train hostess in the corridor of the Trans-Siberian express.

Russia and its ‘inexhaustible human riches’, as well as the absurdity of the Soviet system, give soul to Liksom’s sometimes poetic narrative, crafting it into a living creature that, like Russian delicacies, combine the sour, the sweet and the salt.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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