In 2010, Maylis de Kerengal had the opportunity to travel on the trans-Siberian railway as part of French-Russian cultural exchange and from that experience she developed, first as short story and then as a novella, Eastbound, published in 2012 and now translated by Jessica Moore. (For those familiar with de Kerengal’s work, it was written between Birth of a Bridge and Mend the Living). It tells the story of a Russian conscript, Aliocha, who is heading eastward to an unknown destination. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, and more young men are conscripted into Putin’s army, it has become sadly more relevant today than ever.

Aliocha is frightened both of the vastness of the country he is heading into – “nothing here is in the human scale, nothing familiar will welcome him” – and the ‘hazing’ which will take place when he arrives. Unable to face it, he decides his only choice is to escape:

“The idea suddenly goes through the boy, a flash of lightning-like certainty tangible as a stone… run away, get out as fast as possible, defect, jump.”

Escape is not as easy as it sounds, however – at every stop there will be patrols, and, in his army uniform, he can hardly blend into the crowd. He is alone, in a country where trust is in short supply – a brief conversation with the train’s conductor (left untranslated as provodnitsa for some reason) makes him fear she intends to report him to his sergeant, Letchov – a fear the reader shares as the narrative makes clear she “knows perfectly well, what he has in mind, this one.” The only potential friend is a Frenchwoman, Helene, who is also travelling on the train:

“He’s never seen women like her, awake at this time of night and alone in trains transporting troops, women in men’s shorts and big boots…”

Though the novel’s tension comes from his desire to escape, it is Aliocha’s relationship with Helene that is its most interesting aspect. They do not share a common language and when Aliocha pleads with her to help him:

“…he speaks to her, an astonishing flow of words, trembling to the lips, words that crash into each other and this language that rolls, rolls, pulsing at top speed, a dialect or slang she can’t tell, can’t catch a single word, but the meaning is clear…”

She takes him to her cabin and although there is an awkwardness between them – at first he “doesn’t know where to put himself” – there is also a trust, demonstrated when, on sperate occasions, each watches the other sleep. Helene’s back story is rather sketched in – a Russian lover she met in France but who has now returned to his home country – but this only adds to the sense that life on the train is somehow separate. The thriller aspect of the novel works well with Aliocha hiding in the cabin until they realise the cabin will be searched. He also discovers that leaving the train at a station is not as straight-forward as he had hoped. De Kerengal creates a feeling of tenderness for Aliocha which is also imbued with eroticism:

“His shirt and t-shirt, untucked, leave bare an area of very white skin, hip and belly, smooth, bones jutting and abdomen hollow below the completely hairless chest.”

With its archetypal Russian setting (both the train and the landscape it travels over) the novel pays tribute to Russian literature, but also amusingly draws attention to this, Helene telling herself that she may not know a word of Russian …

“…but she’s read Anna Karenina three times, hums the melody of Dr Zhivago and still knows [the geography text-book definitions of] the taiga, the tundra and the steppe by heart…”

The translation itself is a little jarring at times. The first line, for example – “These guys come from Moscow…” – is a rather informal opening when the narrative does not represent, at this point, the consciousness of a character (and doesn’t seem to tally with words like ‘pallid’ and ‘wan’ which quickly follow). Similarly, ‘knocked up’ sits alongside ‘coveting conjugal salvation’, and the unforgivable ‘gotta’ is used at one point. I have it on good authority that this mix of registers echoes the original French and can only assume it represents the coming together of the sophisticated Helene and lower class Aliocha.

Eastbound is a compassionate thriller, one where suspense is created around the question of whether one person will aid another. It asks us to remember our humanity and the humanity of others. something which goes beyond nationality and language. Its brevity, like the brevity of Aliocha and Helene’s relationship, belies the impression it makes.


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9 Responses to “Eastbound”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I am sure this is a brilliant review, Grant, but I’m not going to read it yet. I have a copy from Archipelago and I think the release has been pushed back to next April so I will refrain from reading until the new year. So tempted but I’ll have to content myself with the stacks of books already waiting to be read in the meantime! 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m sure it’s not a brilliant review – perhaps adequate? – but I hadn’t realised Archipelago had delayed publication. I picked their cover because I couldn’t get a decent picture of the Les Fugitives one (which is a little insipid to begin with). Hope you enjoy it when you get round to it!

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I don’t approve of conscription any time, so I’d be interested in this.
    BTW, both sides in the Ukraine conflict are using conscription. It applies to all men between 18 and 60. Remember those images of Ukrainian men stopped at the border, unable to leave with their wives and children?

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, though there is a difference between conscription for defence and for offence. However, an unpleasant experience whatever the situation. This also demonstrates how conscription can mean an unwillingness to fight, as we have seen.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I’m glad you’ve written about this one, Grant. The premise sounds really interesting and, as you say, all the more relevant now given recent events, but it’s a shame about the slightly jarring nature of the translation. The lyricism of de Kerangel’s prose was one of the things I loved about Mend the Living (also translated by Moore), so it’s a little strange that this doesn’t read quite as smoothly at times. Still, definitely worth keeping in mind as the thriller element sounds intriguing!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds like a fascinating read, Grant, and definitely one I would be interested in, although your comments about the translation make me pause. Do you know if the Les Fugitives and Archipelago translations are by the same person?

  5. International Booker Prize Predictions 2023 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] on a stand-out title this year. Les Fugitives may have more luck with Maylis de Kerangal’s Eastbound (translated by Jessica Moore), a prescient tale of Russian conscription. If Lolli Editions are to […]

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