A journey to enjoy – and endure: Compartment No 6 by Rosa Liksom
Review: The Russian landscape distracts from poor characterisation and heavy-handed devices
Lake Baikal and TransSiberian Express, Russia. Photograph: David Forman/Getty Images
Compartment No. 6
Even now, as the world shrinks through the revolution in communication and travel, the mythic allure of great train journeys endures. The Finnish writer and visual artist Rosa Liksom makes seductive use of a trip she took across Siberia almost 30 years ago in a novel that is often irritating, overly earthy and at times downright offensive, because of the outpourings of one of the characters, yet is invariably kept on track – excuse the pun – by the fabulous journey.
More than 8,000km of dramatically contrasting terrain lies between Moscow and Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, and Liksom describes it all in a heavily descriptive, repetitive prose that may be the outcome of too faithful a translation or of a decision to give a blow-by-blow account of every icy wind and every sunset occurring within the seven time zones.
Russia is the hero of a narrative that, though written as a novel, really comes to life as an epic travelogue, and it is unsurprising that Liksom kept extensive notes for the eight-part series she wrote at the time.
Compartment No 6 inhabits a strange place. Amid extensive descriptions of the changing skies, the dramatic light, the smells, and the endless stray cats and dogs are two largely ineffectual central characters: a depressed young woman and a repellent middle-aged man.
Be warned: the vulgar, shouting male character, intended as a larger-than-life personality and obviously inspired by Nikolai Leskov’s classic The Enchanted Wanderer (1873), although not nearly as interesting, lacks any credibility and is a serious obstacle.
The girl, though bland, is certainly sympathetic. She is also a shadowy figure; considering that Liksom, in full travel-guide mode, packs so many facts into the narrative, she underplays the young student from Finland who clearly loves Russia. The girl is bewildered by her complex relationship with a mentally ill boy and his sexual-predator mother.
Even darker is the memory of a visit to Moscow with her father when she was younger, during which he disappeared for a night with a prostitute who, he claimed, “tasted of milk”. There is a satisfying vagueness about the wounded and bewildered girl, which does, if only at times, convince. She wishes to be alone and deliberately seeks out an empty carriage.
Liksom risks this melancholic independence by allowing her to share the sleeping carriage with a man, Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, who boards the train after a strained farewell with a woman with a tellingly bruised face who is accompanied by their teenage son.
Ivanov subjects the young girl on the train to violent and obscene sexual advances in excessively offensive language. His Jekyll and Hyde personality quickly becomes tedious. When he takes time out from abuse, he indulges in routine self-pity: “Look at me. An old duffer, a melancholy soul filled with a dull calm. A heart that beats out of sheer habit, with no feeling in it anymore. No more pranks for him, not even pain. Just dreariness.”
His idea of light-hearted banter is even worse: “Do you know, my girl, what the difference is between screwing and mating? Screwing is a fun, cheerful activity, while mating is a heavy, joyless task. So how about some screwing?”