Two Trains.

I’m going to quote the start of Lizok’s decade-old post Train Spotting: Buida’s Zero Train and Astaf’ev’s Sad Detective because it’s uncannily appropriate for this one: “There are so many trains in Russian fiction—and history—that I suppose it’s not at all odd that I read, absolutely unintentionally, two short novels in a row with strong railroad themes.” The Buida is one of my pair as well, but the other is Viktor Pelevin’s «Жёлтая стрела» (The Yellow Arrow), from which I recently quoted an extensive passage on the clattering of wheels. They’re both phantasmagorical metaphors having their ultimate origin in Gogol’s famous troika at the end of Dead Souls (Hogarth translation: “Is not the road smoking beneath your wheels, and the bridges thundering as you cross them, and everything being left in the rear […]? What does that awe-inspiring progress of yours foretell?”), but updated to a train; Pelevin’s is ultimately comic, if grimly so (it’s a Russian novel, after all), while Buida’s is tragic (in a way that reminded me of Valentin Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora), and in the immediate aftermath I’m going to say that Buida’s is the better novel, though they’re both well worth the read, and neither will bore you for even a minute.

Andrei, like the other passengers on the Yellow Arrow, has spent as much of his life as he can remember on the train, can see no end of it (literally — the train appears endless), and has no conception of the world outside, though he can see it speeding past the windows. He interacts with people who have various schemes for making money (mirroring the cowboy-capitalism phase Russia was going through in 1993, when both novels were published). Occasionally he clambers up to the roof, where various groups of people are always gathered for unclear reasons, but mostly he wanders the train in search of quiet places to read and think. The word in the corridors is that the train is headed for a broken bridge, but nobody knows anything for sure.

Buida’s protagonist, Ivan Ardabyev (known as Don Domino, the Russian title of the book, because he likes to play dominoes), is essentially nobody from nowhere — his father and mother were enemies of the people, and he has no parent but the Motherland, represented by an affectionate but terrifying KGB colonel who keeps telling him “I can trust you.” He is one of a group of lost souls working at a remote station on a branch line that services only one train, the hundred-car Zero Train (the title of the English translation by Oliver Ready), whose origin, destination, and cargo are unknown and a constant object of speculation to the people of the station. (Note that Pelevin’s characters don’t know what’s outside their train, while Buida’s don’t know what’s in it.) He is madly and hopelessly in love with Esfir (known as Fira), who is married to Misha Landau, and his desperate lust and attempts to quench it with the women provided for that purpose by the authorities are described with an impassioned eloquence that reminds me of Henry Miller. For more, I refer you to Lizok’s excellent discussion (the first link above); as she says, it’s “a nice balance of allegory, history, and reality,” and I would add that it’s superbly written, with canny use of repetition and a refusal to provide any information beyond that needed for the story he wants to tell — we don’t know where or when the events are taking place, or what happens to various characters. The cloud of unknowing reminds me of another great novel of Stalinist terror, Georgi Vladimov’s Верный Руслан (Faithful Ruslan — see this post): Ardabyev is almost as ignorant and unable to communicate as the dog Ruslan (at one point Buida says “Он боялся слов” [He feared words]), but his story is all the more moving on that account. For this kind of tale, less is more. Writers, even fine novelists like Yury Dombrovsky, run the danger of diminishing their effects by trying to tell too much. It’s not a cheerful read, but as I said here, it’s not depressing, because good writing is never depressing.


  1. Thank you for the link and the kind mention, Languagehat, I’m glad that post was helpful for you. A special thanks since I corrected a typo when I reread it! And realized I have yet another link to add to a roundup post I’ve been writing about two books that look at alienation and characters who’ve been orphaned, either literally or metaphysically.

    In any case, I completely agree with you that Дон Домино is well-written; I think it’s the best and most interesting of the Buida books I’ve read.

  2. I do remember one story, also set on a train, in a book of Russian science fiction? / horror? stories that Hat once recommended.

    In the story, passengers are warned NOT to open their windows at a particular station. When the train stops, pitiful people outside the windows implore the passengers to open the windows, but the narrator suppresses the impulse to do so. In one carriage, however, someone ignores the warning. The entire carriage is laid waste and its occupants killed by a malevolent and violent force.

    Do you remember that one Hat?

  3. No I don’t, but it sounds good!

  4. I tried to find it but it’s difficult in a blog where so much is dedicated to Russian language and literature.

    At any rate, it was a book of modern Russian short stories that could be downloaded for free. It turned out to have the backing of the Russian government.

  5. Train as a metaphor for Russian life is pretty well-trodden from Our locomotive (FWIW, I don’t recommend watching it) to This train is on fire (this one is ok).

  6. … to Closely Observed Trains — I was going to say, but I see that’s Czech.

  7. January First-of-May says

    Train as a metaphor for Russian life is pretty well-trodden

    Well-trodden enough for Debate in the train to deliberately discuss its well-troddenness as the topic…

    И каждый пошёл своею дорогой,
    А поезд пошёл своей.

  8. And not only for Russian, either:

  9. “Runaway Train,” that takes me back! (I was into Soul Asylum before they sold out, man, back when they were on Twin/Tone — I saw them live in NYC sometime in the mid-’80s, maybe when they were touring with Hüsker Dü. Great band, but I lost track of them and had no idea they were still performing.)

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