Review: Compartment no. 6 by Rosa Liksom

compartment-no-6-cover

PAPERBACK; 182 P.
TRANS. LOLA ROGERS
SERPENT'S TAIL, 2014/2011
SOURCE: LIBRARY

A sad young Finnish woman boards a train in Moscow, in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Bound for Mongolia, she’s trying to put as much space as possible between her and a broken relationship. Wanting to be alone, she chooses an empty compartment—No. 6.—but her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of a fellow passenger: Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, foul-mouthed former soldier. Vadim fills the compartment with his long and colorful stories, recounting in lurid detail his sexual conquests and violent fights.

There is a hint of menace in the air, but initially the woman is not so much scared of or shocked by him as she is repulsed. She stands up to him, throwing a boot at his head. But though Vadim may be crude, he isn’t cruel, and he shares with her the sausage and black bread and tea he’s brought for the journey, coaxing the girl out of her silent gloom. As their train cuts slowly across thousands of miles of a wintry Russia, where “everything is in motion, snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people and thoughts,” a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two inhabitants of Compartment No. 6. When they finally arrive in Ulan Bator, a series of starlit and sinister encounters bring this incantatory story about a ruined but beautiful country to its powerful conclusion.

Compartment no. 6 is a fantastic novel about travelling – the odd kinship formed between complete strangers – and about Soviet Russia. It begins with the boarding of the Trans-Siberian train, in which a young Finnish student finds herself sharing a train compartment with a boorish Russian construction worker. The girl is looking for an escape from her current situation, because she feels trapped and unable to make up her mind about her relationship with a young man she cares for. Hoping to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Siberian nature and to shut herself from the world, she is, however, forced to come into contact with the brazen, oversharing comrade.

The beauty of the novel lies in the way in which it describes movement. Liksom’s writing is so vivid and compelling that I could almost see the landscape flashing in the train window with my very own eyes – all from the comfort of my comfy couch and centrally heated apartment. I guess it is no wonder that Liksom chose to set the novel during the freezing winter season, as it emphasises the desperation to live and the yearning to die inherent in the nation. The apathy and passion, the poverty and garish luxury – the Soviet Union drawn in Compartment no. 6 is full of contradictions. Even the most despicable travel companion somehow becomes endearing in closed confinement.

Although the many of the details have faded away in the months after reading this novel, Compartment no. 6 is one that still occasionally comes back to haunt me. Although at first it might seem slightly underwhelming in action, the novel leaves a lasting impression. The rhythm of the narration, the pulse of the train on the tracks, feels alive, and the depiction of Soviet Russia as both abhorrent and intriguing is almost loving. There is much to despise in the swearing, uneducated, misogynic male character, but yet there is also the hint of honesty and raw humanity that’s been stripped back to its basest form. So what is the novel really about? In my opinion it’s about two people, two worlds coming together in a closed space; the contact is unavoidable, and though the situation feels occasionally very claustrophobic, there is also much to learn by listening and opening up to these discussions.

I very much enjoyed Compartment no. 6, and I’m glad that it has been translated into several languages and thus has found (and hopefully charmed) readers across the world. If you do ever come across a copy of this book, I urge you to pick it up and read it. For such a short novel it provides fascinating insight to human relationships. I’d especially recommend this to readers who are planning to or have travelled the Trans-Siberian railway or are interested in Soviet fiction in general. If you want more convincing, I suggest you read also Sarah’s and Madame Bibi’s fantastic reviews.

4/5

An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature, into oppressive darkness lit by a cloudy, starless sky. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts.

Around the World in 80 Books

maps

I spotted this reading challenge from Hard Book Habit, a fabulous book blog written by two voracious – and hilarious – readers. The idea of the challenge is to read 80 books set in different countries with at least one book set on each continent, one set on sea and one centered around travelling. I’ve for a long time been intrigued by all the reading diversely/across the world/the continents challenges, but this one seems like a perfect fit for me – a low-key challenge with a chance of learning! Reading 80 books for a challenge is quite a hefty task, so luckily there is no time limit for the journey. I assume it will take me more than one year to complete the challenge, two if I put my mind into it.

I got so excited about the challenge that I instantly started to compile a list of books I would like to read and that are either set or written in countries other than Finland, UK or USA (the top three countries according to my reading statistics and ones that I’ll most likely read many books for). I’ve made a shelf on my Goodreads to keep track of the books I read, and I’ll try to review each of them here using the tag #AW80Books. This post will serve as my travelogue/master post for the reading journey which I’ll update my as I go along.

Here’s a short list of some of the first destinations I hope to travel to:

AFRICA
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Set in South Africa, the book follows an English professor in the post-Apartheid Cape Town. The lovely Kainzow recommended this one to me ages ago, so I think it’s the perfect starting point for a challenge like this.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – READ
Set in Congo. A classic tale of the “white man’s burden” and an exploration of the deep human psyche. Perhaps not the right fit for this challenge. Although it highlights the racism in the Western perspective, it still falls to the pits of western blindness.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – READ
Set in Nigeria. Almost a direct response to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe’s tale of a Nigerian village life and the struggles of a successful fighter in the changing climate of colonization – both the good and the bad.

ASIA

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs – READ
Set in Pakistan. A beautiful and poetic story of love, innocence, kindness and war. Hobbs has beautifully captured the sense of how the Afghan war has disturbed the life in the peaceful small communities.

The Corpse Exhibition And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim – READ
Set in Iraq. Hassan Blasim began his writing career only few years after arriving to Finland, but he has already been named as one of the most exciting Arabic fiction writers alive (according to The Guardian). Considering he’s a bit of a local celebrity where I live, I think it apt to begin exploring the Middle East through his short stories.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami – READ
Set in Japan. A curious exploration of libraries, knowledge, education and the surreal magical realism of Murakami

The Vegetarian by Hang Kang – READ
Set in South Korea. The winner of Man Booker International Prize 2016. The Vegetarian follows one woman’s decision to give up meat and the reaction that this causes in her family. It’s a deeply upsetting and raw tale of a woman’s fight against oppression and patriarchal norms.

EUROPE
A Constellation of a Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Set in Chechnya. This one I actually don’t know much about except that it is a blogger favourite and adored by many of the readers whose tastes often go hand in hand with mine.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Set in Russia. This is one that I really really want to get to this year. Everyone who has read it loves it, so I cannot wait to tackle this and (hopefully) adore it as well.

A Man Called Ove by Peter Backman – READ
Set in Sweden. A heart-warming tale of an old grumpy man who hates the world and modern society, but is pulled out of his shell by his neighbours.

Estonian haiku poetry by Asko Künnap, Karl Martin Sinijärv, Jürgen Rooste – READ
Set in Estonia. A tiny collection of haiku poetry written in Estonian – which I read in Finnish translation. In few words: fascinating and very post-modern.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
Set in Denmark/Greenland, this book follows a woman investigating the mysterious suicide of a young boy from her neighbourhood. It’s one that remember reading an extract from ages ago and buying a copy a few years back with the intention of reading it soon. It’s high time to get on this.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – READ
Set in Italy. This is the first novel in the Neapolitan Quartet that follows two girls growing up in 1950s Naples, their friendship and aspirations as well as the society surrounding them.

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk – READ
Set in Turkey. Understated beauty of a family in the society at the brink of civil war. Aspirations for Western affluence, civilisation, love and acceptance, and terrible miscommunication between sisters and brothers.

AMERICAS
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos – READ
Set in Mexico, the book follows the young son of a drug cartel mafioso. Said to be quirky and Alice in Wonderland like, I’m looking forward to this foray into Mexican literature.

MISCELLANOUS
Compartment no. 6 by Rosa Liksom – READ
Set on the Trans Siberian Express. This book won the prestigious Finlandia prize in 2011. It’s by the Finnish author Rosa Liksom, who’ve I’ve been meaning to read for a looong time, and it’s also one that has been translated into English.

Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne – READ
This one’s a re-read for me, because I read it the first time when I was twelve and then maybe again the next year. So it’s been over 10 years since I last read it! I haven’t touched any of Verne’s books as an adult, so I’m both interested and scared to see how I feel about them now. Might count this one as the one set on sea.

Let me know if you have any suggestions as to books/countries that I should check out – I’m especially curious about South America, since my knowledge of the literature from the continent is almost nonexistent. Also, if you’d like to participate, please do so! More details can be found from HardBookHabit. Happy reading! x