Rights sold: Russia - NLO
Shortlisted for the 2019 NOS Literary Award
Loosely modelled on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the plot of this novel centres around a journey undertaken by a diverse group of figures and two deaths that take place among them within the first couple of days. The setting is the enclosed space of a train car on a solemnly inaugurated direct railroad connection between the Chinese city “X.” and London, but the narrator’s inclination for letting his mind wander freely takes the reader all over the world, jumping between China and Europe, the past and the present, etc. In fact, the story itself doesn’t map more than the first three days of the journey. The chief question of a detective story – who the murderer is – ceases to be important in the light of the musings that play and interweave as the train makes its way across the vast expanse of the continent.
The reader’s guided through most of the novel by the first-person narrative of one of the travellers, a well-read intellectual who enjoys hearing the sound of his inner voice and lets it take him into the farthest corners of his mind (and the world), while remaining slightly skeptical to the ideas it suggests. He presents the scene in a camera-like style, zooming in, describing details meticulously, often letting them distract and inspire him into a digression in which he combines what he knows with sometimes fantastic and far-fetched ideas, constructing a whole system of belief before returning to the narrative. The narrative itself is pushed to the background ever more as it provides merely a scheme for the narrator’s reflections and loosely flowing associations.
The subjects the narrator’s philosophical musings touch upon include: alcohol-drinking traditions around the world; the fact that China represents the future and Europe the past, making the train journey a return from the future into the past; the idea that at some point, apart from “the present”, the distant past will be the only thing that ever truly existed and everything between the distant past and the present will be lost with each new digital system replacing the old one, etc. Halfway through the book the reader is treated to an essay on hell and a thorough analysis of its various forms.
An “opera” performed by the characters appears towards the end, using excerpts from ancient Chinese poetry, which provides another artistic adaptation of the events on the train inserted in the adaptation that is the novel itself.
In the author’s own words, “it is a sort of late modernist (but not so-called ‘postmodernist’!) mixture of Agatha Christie and Alain Robbe-Grillet with a pinch of J. G. Ballard”. A year after its publication, the events of 2020 have imparted unexpected relevance to this novel, not only due to China being the starting point of the journey it describes, but chiefly thanks to its treatment of human isolation and its possible consequences, as well as toying with the grim and funny scenarios of the future of humankind.