‘Eastbound’ by Maylis de Kerangal (Review)

Much as I would enjoy extending #JanuaryInJapan well into 2023, it’s time to bid a (temporary) farewell to all things J-Lit and move on with the rest of the blogging year, and that begins today with the first of this year’s crop of review copies.  We’re off on a very big journey, in a surprisingly little book, to meet two strangers thrown together on an awfully big adventure.  Make sure you’ve got your ticket ready – one thing I can promise is that there will be thorough inspections…

French writer Maylis de Kerangal has a habit of using her books to explore a particular topic (organ donations, scenery painting), and Eastbound (translated by Jessica Moore, review copy courtesy of Archipelago Books) is centred on the Trans-Siberian Express, the train running all the way from Moscow to Vladivostock.  Rest assured, though, that this is no Brysonesque travelogue but a taut, tense work using the train as a backdrop for a story of two very different people, both on the run.

Aliocha is a conscripted soldier, heading off to begin his service somewhere in the far east of Russia, but having already experienced some of the brutality that awaits him there, he’s decided that he’s going to try to escape.  That proves to be a tricky endeavour, but on one foiled attempt at a stopover, he runs into Hélène, a French woman on the first leg of her long journey home, and after an interesting night spent smoking quietly together makes a silent plea for help:

Aliocha holds his breath now, he’s no beggar, no victim, he’s just like her, he’s running away, that’s all.  The woman looks the boy straight in the eye – a clearing opens, very green, in the dirty dawn – and bites her lip.  Follow me.
p.44 (Archipelago Books, 2023)

It’s an impulse decision, a kind gesture to help out a stranger in need, but you have to wonder whether it will turn out to be the wisest of choices…

Eastbound is an intriguing book, a fairly quick read (which is ironic, given the lengthy journey!), and the setting provides much of the charm.  Like Aliocha and Hélène, we’re stuck on the train, for the most part content to enjoy the view:

But they don’t move, standing before the pane of glass which is like a movie screen for them, where everything stirs gently, molecular as terror and desire, and then suddenly the night tears open and the landscape hardens outside, clean, geometrical, pure lines and new perspectives, the end of the organic night, the forest rises up in the razing light of dawn, and it’s still the same forest, the same slender trees, the same orangey trunks, a forest identical to itself to this extent is insane… (p.41)

There’s many a cinematic scene, occasions when the background becomes the story, with the hypnotic hum of the rails and the endless line of trees stretching into the distance.

The tension comes from Aliocha’s decision to flee, the young man hiding out on the train, knowing that if he doesn’t manage to melt into the crowd at one of the bigger stops, eventually someone will come looking for him.  His fear is fully justified, and his fate seems rather gloomy, whether he’s caught and punished or ends up serving his years in Siberia.  The book dates back to 2012, but the events are perhaps lent even greater weight after the events of the past year, and the reality of the plight of young Russian conscripts…

Much of the focus of Eastbound, however, comes from the interaction between two very different people, the young, scared Russian man and the older Frenchwoman, who quickly regrets what she’s done.  On several occasions, the writer hints at how alien they are to each other, communicating with gestures owing to the lack of a common language.  This is a story where east meets west, both seeing the other as coming almost from a different world, and finding it hard to avoid all suspicion.

There’s also tension of a very different kind as their feelings towards each other change.  Hélène’s initial sympathy, pity even, for Aliocha soon changes to exasperation as she realises what she’s done.  After his initial timidity melts, the soldier starts to become slightly pushier, with more aggressive gestures and actions, and certain demands.  There’s nothing sexual about their interaction, at least not overtly, but the unbearable stress of being confined in the compartment together, knowing that a knock could come at any time, gradually works on their nerves.

In a short novel, much is made of the relative concept of time, with the way it passes on the train very different to what happens elsewhere:

Outside, it’s still the same chrome-plated night and the train that rolls unerringly, crossing time zones one by one, breaking up time as it charges through space; the train that compacts or dilates the hours, concretes the minutes, stretches out the seconds, continues on pegged to the earth and yet out of sync with earth’s clocks; the train like a spaceship. (p.92)

De Kerangal expertly depicts the monotony of the lengthy journey, the unchanging landscape and the repetitive view of trees outside the window.  However, there’s also the agonising wait of the fugitive when he senses that those seeking him have found his scent, each second lasting an eternity as he waits for possible release.

Eastbound is an enjoyable journey across Russia with two very different people in the hands of an accomplished writer and translator, a book that you’ll fly through (it’s certainly not one that would fill a journey on the train itself!).  At times, it can be hard to tell what the true focus of the book is, the story or the train, but one way to see it is as the story of two people trying to escape from very different lives.  Is it the start of something new, or just a fleeting encounter before they part ways again?  That’s something we’ll only find out at the very end of the line…

9 thoughts on “‘Eastbound’ by Maylis de Kerangal (Review)

  1. I have loved some of the Kerangal I’ve read but not all of it, but this sounds taut and clear – plus I’m always fascinated by the difference in perceptions between Eastern and Western Europe, having experienced that myself. You should consider joining my very informal, very spur of the moment #FrenchFebruary hashtag, which I simply created for myself because I liked the alliteration after #JanuaryInJapan.


  2. I’m really pleased to read your review of Eastbound Tony- think it was reviewed in The Guardian then dropped off my shelf somehow-I’ll try to get hold of it. The theme of two v different travellers on a long train journey through Russia puts me in mind of the film Compartment number 6.


  3. I think you’re spot on in identifying the most interesting aspect of this novel, the complexities of the relationship and the way it shifts over what is a short period of time. Inspired by a visit to Russia when cultural exchange was still happening – which is maybe why it feels less theme based.


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