A while back, when I was looking in the uni library for a Korean book for Women in Translation Month, I stopped by the neighbouring Japanese section (as you do) to see if there was anything interesting. As chance would have it, a name leapt out, a writer I’d been wanting to try for a long time. There was just one thing a little odd about the book – and it all has to do with translation…
Yoko Tawada is a Japanese writer who has been living in Germany for many years, sharing her creative output between her native and adopted languages. One of the reasons I’d never quite seemed to get around to trying her books was that I wanted to try the German works in the original language – and I was never completely sure which were which… Complicating matters, today’s book, as you’ll see from the photo, is in a different language entirely, as Train de nuit avec suspects (Night Train with Suspects, translated by Ryoko Sekiguchi and Bernard Banoun) is a French translation of a 2003 Japanese release (a book not yet available in English as far as I’m aware). With me so far?
Night Train… is a short work, a book stuck somewhere between a novel and a series of connected stories. It contains thirteen sections, not chapters but ‘carriages’, and all of the stories involve journeys on night trains. The central character, ‘vous’ (‘you’), is constantly addressed in the second person by a mysterious ‘je’ (‘I’), which has the effect of distancing the character from the reader. What we experience here are journeys by train across the world, travel taken mostly by darkness – on the whole, this is a book of the night…
Like all the best journeys, the pleasure of Tawada’s work lies in travelling, not arriving, and each of the journeys is an experience, an opportunity to relax in that rare calm space between chunks of real life, an area free of responsibility. It’s about creating memories and meeting people, the fuel for stories to be told later. There’s also a sense of trusting strangers in a way you normally wouldn’t, something which may or may not turn out well.
Thanks to the French language, it’s clear from the start that the central figure is a woman, and gender is important here with our protagonist travelling alone. Rightly or wrongly, we feel a sense of unease because of this, with each new passenger entering the carriage a potential threat. This danger isn’t restricted to the passengers; the male gaze is evident outside the trains too. At one point, the woman (a dancer and choreographer by trade) is fleeing an overbearing male choreographer in Berlin, humiliated by his touch. On the night train to Beijing, she is witness to a very different kind of male activity, one she’d rather not have seen (even if the man does get his comeuppance later).
In a book where names are conspicuous by their absence, the stories are less about individuals, though, than about the whole issue of trust. The traveller, whether in her younger, more innocent days, or as a slightly more critical older woman, wants to believe in the good will of strangers. Judging people by their appearance isn’t always a great idea, but while you may be disappointed, you can also, on occasion, be pleasantly surprised:
“Dans votre pays, vous n’auriez pas confié de l’argent à un inconnu pour qu’il vous rende un service. Alors pourquoi l’aviez-vous fait maintenant?”
p.54 (Verdier, 2005)
“In your country, you wouldn’t have given a stranger some money so that he could do something for you. So why had you done so now?” *** (My translation)
The night train takes you to different places, cities where you act differently, setting aside the natural caution of your normal life. At times, we shudder at the innocence and foolishness of youth – that is, when we’re not envious of it…
Night Train… is an excellent read, with most of its short (ten-page) trips hitting the mark. Both because I was busy and because of reading in French, I took this book rather slowly, and that worked well – it’s definitely a book to consume in small doses. Tawada has a wonderful eye for scenes, always finding the comical in the people around, and the nature of the stories is abstract and bizarre at times (and frequently funny too). There are many beautiful descriptions which help place the reader in the traveller’s shoes, scenes of empty stations and dark, cold mornings:
“Vous étiez arrivée au petit matin en gare de Zagreb, et c’est au milieu de beaucoup d’autre personnes que vous aviez dû descendre du train, traînant un corps lourd encore tout trempé de nuit. Pourtant, une fois sur le quai, lorsque vous aviez regardé autour de vous après avoir arrangé votre col, les gens avaient disparu, comme dissipés dans l’air frais et limpide du matin.” (p.41)
“You had arrived at the crack of dawn at Zagreb station, and it was in the midst of many other people that you had been compelled to descend from the train, dragging a heavy body still soaked with night. However, once upon the platform, when you had looked all around after having adjusted your collar, the people had disappeared, as if melted into the fresh, limpid air of the morning.” ***
The lack of names adds to the uncertainly we feel, giving it all a sense of the unreal, almost as if we were wandering into a fairytale at times.
As well as being a wonderful read, the book evoked memories of travels past, bringing back fragments of my own youthful experiences on night trains across Europe. As we follow the woman from Hamburg to Paris, Moscow to Irkutsk, Patna to Bombay, it’s hard not to feel a slight sense of Wanderlust. The thirteen sections, like real night train journeys, are little slices of life. You get on the train, you meet some fellow travellers, you spend some time together in an intimate space, and then they’re gone forever…
The more I think about it, the less I’m sure that Night Train… is a novel. Even if the pieces belong together, they’re stories that can be read separately, each showing a slightly different aspect of the night train experience. It’s excellent, nonetheless, an evocative work of the beauty of the ephemeral, with each journey a snapshot of a moment in time. There is one major difference, however, between the book and the journeys – unlike our past travels, the book can be read over and over again. It’s certainly a journey I’d be happy to revisit some day.