translated by David Ball, Nicole Ball
An Unexpected Trans-Siberian Railway Trip
A French novella that I read in an afternoon, we accompany our Parisian protagonist Anne, on a train journey towards Lake Baikal, in Southern Siberia, a journey she makes on a local train, having spontaneously decided to find out why her friend Gyl is no longer responding to her letters.
For the first six months he had written often, telling me he had time to go fishing for omul in the lake and make kites for children.
And then, silence.
Once on the train and it’s a long journey, she has time to think and recall their friendship, they were lovers many years ago and while she holds no flame for him, the journey allows her to reflect on the highs and lows of their union.
I knew that the return trip is the real journey, when it floods the days that follow, so much so that it creates the prolonged sensation of one time getting lost in another, of one space losing itself in another. Images are superimposed on one another – a secret alchemy, a depth of field in which our shadows seem more real than ourselves. That is where the truth of the voyage lies.
Get To Know Your Neighbour
What she does spend time thinking of, is her recent past and another spontaneous decision, to knock on the door of a neighbour whom she has never seen, an elderly woman.
I had never run into her in the lobby of the building, not on the stairs. I knew all the other people who lived there, or at least their names and faces, but Clémence Barrot remained a mystery. No sounds would ever reach me when I walked by her door, and if I asked questions about her, all I got were laconic answers and knowing looks…A character!
The door is opened by a young girl and peering inside she sees the older woman sitting on a red sofa by a window. As an excuse for her curiosity she mentions there might be noise as she has people coming for dinner that evening. The woman asks her a favour in return for the anticipated inconvenience.
With a big smile, she retorted that she would rather we proceeded differently: for all past dinners, for this one and the next ones, she would only ask in exchange that I occasionally read to her a little, if I had the time.
Passionate French Women Who Faced Death Unflinchingly
And so we meet some bold French female heroines of the past, sadly a number of whom for their feminist inclinations in the wrong era, lose their lives at the guillotine.
“Tell me about that gutsy girl again,” Clémence Barrot would sometimes ask about Marion de Faouët and her army of brigands. She had, just as I did, a real affection for that child who had not grown up to become a lady’s companion despite all the efforts of the Jaffré sisters. No, she became a leader of men instead, an avenger of Brittany which had been starved during the 1740’s.
A wild beauty, faithful to her village, her loves and her ideals, Marion had been imprisoned several times before dying on the gallows at the age of thirty-eight.
While these stream of consciousness thoughts pass through her mind, various locals enter and exit the train. She is happy to be immersed in the languages of the area and in two books she has brought with her, Dostoevsky’s War and Peace and a book by the philosopher Jankélévitch.
Travel To Exotic Destinations Through Story
Becoming particularly interested in one man whom she can’t communicate with – Igor – she imagines things about him from the little she observes and seeks him out more than one time when he disappears.
I had just read ‘There are encounters with people completely unknown to us who trigger our interest at first sight, suddenly, before a word has even been said…”
It’s an engaging read considering not much happens, but there is just the right mix of action and reflection and indeed, by the end a build up to a couple of dramas and quiet resolution.
I really enjoyed the read and was surprised at how captivated I was by the journey. I do love long train journey’s and hers was such an indulgent whim, that the suspension of what she will encounter is enough to keep the reader interested, and the relationship with her elderly neighbour provides a brilliant counterpoint and empathic adjunct, becoming the more significant event to the ‘thousands of miles’ distraction.
N.B. This was one of the many Seagull Books offered weekly to readers during the period of confinement.
Reviewed by Rough Ghosts