Maylis De Kerangal’s Eastbound relates a Russian soldier, Aliocha, attempting to evade military service by hiding aboard a Trans-Siberian railcar venturing from Moscow to Vladivostok. Aliocha’s determined flight, given the military’s endless reach, has proven to be the only rational response to the dysfunction and brutality of his corps. More than a prescient one-sided tale, Eastbound also depicts a young French woman, Hélène, fleeing an unsatisfactory relationship. In order to successfully flee, each must trust the other, difficult given a strict language barrier. The novel’s relentless pace is matched by De Kerangal’s beautiful lyricism. Simple acts, like preparing to step outside from a train car, are written with masterful, close attention.
Aliocha looks at his watch. In just twenty minutes it’ll be the Krasnoyarsk station, the thick night, opaque without being black—and whether this night is a friend or an enemy, again he can’t be sure. Right now each of his movements works like a valve distributing two lines, symmetrical and irreconcilable, that divide in their turn, divide, divide again, plunge into a material time, a ramified future in the troubled darkness of the car, a future that harbors his freedom, Aliocha knows this, he knows nothing but this, this is his only certitude. Concentrating, he goes over the plan for his escape, reviews hypotheses and probabilities: a little before Krasnoyarsk he’ll get out of his bunk and Letchov will / won’t wake up; Letchov won’t wake up and Aliocha will mix in with the conscripts who get out on the platform; unsteady on his legs, he’ll bum a cigarette from the first guy he sees, the guy will give it to him / will refuse; the guy will refuse saying he’s broke and Aliocha will reply, logically: ok, hang on, I’ll go see if I can find some in the station.
And this is exactly what happens. The Trans-Siberian stops, it’s Krasnoyarsk in the night, and it’s an event. Disheveled, wobbly after eleven hours in the train, a few guys press together as though they were trying to fit inside each other—the good old sexual joke—about ten of them, they’re not tired. On the platform they stand in circles of light drawn by the station lamps on the concrete and start smoking, stomping their big shoes on the ground, thump thump, soon they’re jumping in place, tightening their collars around their warm throats, re- buttoning their sleeves at the wrist, surprised by the cold of these April nights when Siberia still drags its feet in winter, swollen, river frozen into a hard crust, mute nature, and in a flash those who feed them appear and place baskets filled with victuals at the bottom of the train steps—ham, cookies, vodka, sometimes a soup—push through the groups headfirst, jostling elbows and shoulders, or opt to surround them instead, immediately begin moving the merchandise all the while smoothing small bills between dirty fingers, bundling them quickly. They’re the fauna of the platforms—women, mostly, bundled up in heavy coats (but the skin of their knees looks bare above their boots), scarves knotted under their chins and voices firm, older men with rheumy eyes, scrawny teens bent beneath the bags—the ones who paid the price in gold for the right to be there, trafficking smokes, dealing cold beer and candy—those who know the notice boards by heart— numbers, schedules, destinations. The insomniacs are already pacing the platforms, the restless calm their agitation with long strides, the players relax, the children run, here and there you’ll see a young woman nursing her baby in the dimness or a guy crossing the rails to go piss somewhere far from the light, a multitude of feverish fingers tap on keyboards, and cell phone screens make faces glow white. Aliocha is there in the right place crossing his arms over his t-shirt and laughing along with the rest, a forced laugh, rough in his tight throat. He didn’t put anything on before getting out, didn’t take his bag for fear of attracting attention, he’s the lightest he could be, nothing in his hands, nothing in his pockets, stripped of everything that would give him a name—he folded the photograph of his mother into the bottom of his shoe—but he has a cell phone, a charger and a hundred rubles; the desperate young conscript is gone, this is a different man. Because already a conscript is showing Aliocha his empty cigarette pack and lifting a thumb over his shoulder, pointing to the buildings of the station, go check there, you’ve got time—a glance at his watch. Aliocha nods, his plan is working like gangbusters, he turns with his hands in his pockets, above all don’t make eye contact with the others, step away a few meters, these first meters are a river of ice, a desert of stones or a poisonous jungle, every trap- infested fractious zone. He walks straight ahead and is soon out of the circles of the station lights, a would-be deserter tossed out under the domed sky, sounds fading in his ear as though he’d dived into the sea, the shouts get quieter and fear seizes his throat: he’s in Krasnoyarsk, a city he knows nothing about and where he will have to survive, alone, forsaken, poor, without shelter—what madness is he embarking on? Doesn’t he know that in hostile territory the solution is always collective? Who does he think he is? Before he runs, he still has to get past his filthy ignorance and know where he’s putting his feet.
Aliocha hurries, heads for the front of the train, car after car, with the feeling of swimming against the current, slaloms between travelers spread out over the platform and latches on to the footsteps of a woman ahead of him. She’s a foreigner, Aliocha can tell right away: backpack over her shoulder, honey- colored sheepskin coat, faded jeans tucked into leather boots, purple scarf that forms a textile-soft brace around her neck, and she’s tall, brown curly hair cut short. She stops in front of each door and seems to squint to see the number on the cars—is she near-sighted?—she, too, heading for the front of the train, making her way calmly towards the first- class cars. Aliocha positions himself in her slipstream, seven, eight cars they’ve passed now, about a hundred meters of platform, the station tower grows clearer, its lights throb, blinking out a Morse code he makes out instinctively—come, come—just as the arteries in his neck throb. And suddenly the provodnitsa is there, walking towards him, heavy, her face placid but with panicked eyes sending out signals like a lighthouse beam. Aliocha slows, deciphers this face three meters in front of him, eyes that stare at him wide as saucers, eyebrows lifted all the way to the hairline, forehead on alert: he’s in danger, something behind him is a threat. Aliocha hesitates before turning and his heart hardens in an instant, a pebble: Letchov. Ten meters away. He’s walking slowly, the steps of someone who’s watching nothing and nobody, who’s granting himself his little nocturnal promenade. Goddamn it what is he doing outside in the middle of the night? Aliocha salivates, out of breath, hands on his hips, landslide in his chest— the raging landslide of disappointment, fragmentation and collapse. It’s not even five degrees outside at this hour, but over there the skinny streetlights are enough to warm the space, to give it this orangey transparency, this glow of a ball, and then the night begins to dance, it spins once in a circle, because Letchov passes by with his heavy steps without even seeing him, he can be heard quietly spewing words into his phone while the provodnitsa pulls up short in front of Aliocha and, a rather good actress, says loudly: there are no cigarette vendors at the front of the train my boy, you won’t find any here! Aliocha, dumbstruck, casts a glance past her: a trio of soldiers patrols slowly, black boots and felt pots on their heads, the buttons of their gabardine coats catching the light in brief flashes. He’s surrounded. He turns and heads back towards the conscripts’ cars with his head down, wanting to cry. Behind him, a few meters away, the provodnitsa, straight as the letter “i”; and further, the half- dozen curiously nonchalant military boot soles; Letchov, for his part, reaches the end of a long arcing half- circle that will land him at the entrance to the car in the precise instant when he finishes saying into his phone something to the effect of if you see him again I’ll break your nose, I’ll gouge out your eyes, I’ll fuck you up, you know it, you know I’ll do it, the words spat out, machine- gun fire into a feather pillow, and finally, he’s the last one to climb back into the train car.
The train again. Monotonous rolling, cyclical clicking, axles warming up, shrieks of metal and, if you listened close, you’d also hear—like a tiny soundtrack woven into this hellhole—the torment of Aliocha’s heart, there, back again in the compartment of the Trans-Siberian, back in his spot next to the window, and once again hypnotized by the rails, the short portion of tracks that are illuminated for a fraction of a second by the train’s rear lights, the whitish trail that closes space again immediately in its passage, relegating it to a zone behind, unformed and pulsating, delivering it to the amniotic dark of origins.
Aliocha fears that the day is almost here. The last conscripts have all gone to sleep and he gathers himself into his solitude, bitterness stings his throat, bitterness or bad tobacco he doesn’t know anymore, feels trapped in a backwash of terror and cold rage, a dirty mix: in Krasnoyarsk, escape refused him its clear line, it gave out beneath his feet. Now, he needs to hold on, buy some time, wait for the next big city where he might hide, remake himself and earn enough to get back to the west. Learn patience. Stay calm, don’t do anything stupid, don’t talk to anyone or get out just anyplace, for example one of those large villages the Trans- Siberian causes to spring up from the earth, the ones threaded along the tracks like beads on a necklace—wooden houses with chimneys smoking, passing silhouettes that tend the gardens, dogs that bark behind the fences— he must renounce these isolated stations, these easy- to- search villages where he would so easily be caught. Patience, Aliocha, patience! He leans close to the glass, his gaze goes out past the reflection of his own face: the outside is compact and shadowy, oceanic. The Siberian forest is there—to sink into it would be like entering black water with stones in the bottom of his pockets, and Aliocha wants to live.