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?”
It seems very odd that the matronly woman in charge of the train would allow it. Forceful and domineering by nature, she seems exactly the kind of person who would insist that the man move to another carriage. After some token protest, the girl accepts the situation with a mixture of tolerance and sulking.
Liksom clearly feels that the unlikely travelling arrangement adds to the novel. It doesn’t. It is instead a heavy-handed narrative device suggesting she had the material but not quite the imaginative resources to develop the girl as a character. Instead she acts as a foil to Ivanov.
Even so, for all the irritation of the excessive descriptions of him eating, drinking oceans of vodka, sitting in his underwear and bragging about his virility, the Russian landscape provides sufficient distraction.
Liksom has said elsewhere that Russia is her main hobby, and it shows. She may well have meant passion. The title of the book may be intended as a play on the name of one of Chekhov’s major stories, Ward No 6, as she refers to more than 30 Russian writers in the course of the novel.
Most of the music played on the train and in the various railway stations is by Russian composers, all classical, symphonic and opera. Beethoven does, however, make a brief appearance.
A cab radio is switched on, and immediately “Galina Vishnevskaya filled the car with Tatiana’s aria”. Great Russian painters are also represented; reproductions hang on the humblest wall.
Liksom’s point is that the Russians are a deeply cultured people, which naturally raises the question of why she decided to include a character as cliched as Ivanov, with his ongoing repertoire of insulting comments about women.
Although the novel runs to fewer than 200 pages it feels much longer, because it is demanding and visually rich with descriptions of places such as Irkutsk, a city in Siberia. The eye is constantly at work imagining the views, the vast expanses, the remarkable images, whereas little of what passes for dialogue is memorable. It is an Andrei Tarkovsky film placed within the covers of a book.
The novel is set in 1986, with various flashbacks and asides, and there is a powerful sense of the living Russia, albeit at some remove from the political reality.
This bizarre yarn, which won the 2011 Finlandia Prize and an English Pen award, is a love story to Russia, celebrating its beauty, its madness, its many warts. Compartment No 6 is well worth reading for Liksom’s personal paean to Russia, which is at its most intense in a long list of often-perceptive observations (from page 142 to 144).
The young girl, an archaeology student who enjoys drawing, reflects on how she has come “to love that strange country, its . . . satisfied, submissive, loving, tough people, content with little”.
By the end of the narrative and the journey, it is possible to dislike all the characters apart from a little old woman who recalls being sold as a young girl to an old man, yet also to wish to board the very same train, if in an empty carriage.