#AW80Books: ‘Compartment No.6’ by Rosa Liksom
I ordered Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No.6 after reading a really compelling blog review. I only wish I could remember which blog I got the recommendation from, so I could say thanks! as it was the perfect ‘travel’ book for my ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ reading challenge.
Although both the novel and author were unknown to me, I decided to take a punt on Compartment No.6 anyway as it won the Finlandia prize in 2011. It begins with a young woman boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway to leave behind the complications of a relationship with an intense young man in fragile mental health and his sexually attractive and available mother. Her purpose is to escape, to process and unravel her emotional knots, allowing the time, distance and isolation of the journey to help her unkink.
Having located an empty carriage, her solitude is shattered when as the train is about to depart, a gruff middle-aged man enters the carriage, shattering all her hopes of quiet introspection. He is accompanied by a woman whose tellingly bruised face fills the young woman with anxiety and repulsion for her unwelcome travel companion. The journey will be a long one and the carriages contain sleeping berths, meaning that whether they like it or not, the pair are thrust into a claustrophobic and antagonistic intimacy for the duration of the train’s long, slow trajectory from Moskow across the continent heading east.
I followed the journey on my map and found the descriptions of the landscape exhilarating. The expanse of land, and wide-open vistas contrasted starkly with the close tension of the compartment. Unsettled by the continued silence of his companion, the man, Vadim, talks continuously, bragging of his sexual conquests, and sharing unasked for musings on life, amply fuelled by vodka and mysogyny. He is a deeply unlikeable character and the undercurrent of threat is ever-present in the compartment as she continues to reject his unwanted advances.
Despite the tense impasse between the characters, Liksom manages to convey the long empty hours of boredom shared between them. Strangely, the shared experience of the journey, the shared meals, the brief scouting expeditions at towns along the way creates some kind of bond between them that is not friendship, but is tangible nonetheless. When, towards the end of the novel, they have reached their destination, the young woman finds herself alienated and threatened by her environment, so she goes to find Vadim and he helps her. The main two characters might be hard to like – Vadim is relentlessly obnoxious, while the young woman is aloof and enigmatic, we don’t even find out her name – but I found their uneasy relationship intriguing and insightful. Liksom shows the power of shared experience, forging an unlikely alliance, one which even overrides repulsion, disgust and distrust when under extreme circumstances.
As a novel about travel, Compartment No. 6 couldn’t have been more satisfying. Visualising the changing landscape to a soundtrack of various Russian composers (along with Beethoven) whose music plays out of the train compartment’s speaker throughout the journey, I was fully transported across the Russian steppes. Alighting in Mongolia, I didn’t feel ready to leave, and have continued my armchair reading travels from that very spot. You can track my route via the books I’ve read, and see what other books Lucy and I have got lined up here.