Book Review

Eastbound by Maylis de Kerangal

a pre-release post on a novella about Russian conscripts

cw: war, war crimes

Eastbound is translated from the French by Jessica Moore, released 2023 by Archipelago Books.

This forthcoming Archipelago Books publication, Eastbound, was provided to me as a review copy from the publisher, so I feel like I should try and knock out a less digressive post on it than I ordinarily would.

The postage – if my lover and I read the label correctly – appeared to be over 40 US dollars to get the book here to London, which puts a little pressure on this mentally ill unemployed poet: will this blog post provide 45 USD worth of value to Archipelago? I doubt it will, but it’s nice to know that – for them – maybe it could: that’s the privilege afforded to TriumphOfTheNow.com after being quoted in the New Yorker lol. (I’d forgotten that happened for a couple of weeks.)

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Eastbound is a strange, short, novel (a novella), set somewhere between the invention of smartphones & Lady Gaga and the present day. It was published in the original French in 2012 and this translation will be released in early 2023.

It is both simultaneously narrative heavy and narrative light, with what amounts to a life or death scenario – the individual against the state – treated with a realistically understated and humane near nonchalance.

The narrative opens with Aliocha, a young Russian lad, 19/20ish, who is on the Trans-Siberian railway headed “eastwards” for conscripted military service. Aliocha does not want to go, he understands that this is almost a guaranteed death sentence (even in the interim between the invention of smartphones & Lady Gaga and the present day?) and he is beaten up, bullied and abused by the other, rowdier, conscripts around him on the train. He decides to desert.

The train stops at a station and Aliocha tries to get off, but is ushered back on by a station worker presuming he was confused. At this station, a new traveller joins the train, a sexy 30-something French woman who is headed eastwards on a long-way-round journey back to Paris, leaving her Russian boyfriend behind somewhere in West Siberia. She does not speak Russian (other than a few words and phrases), and the young man who she ends up helping doesn’t speak French. With little in common, other than heading in the same cardinal direction and both wishing to head back to a home to the west, the woman helps the conscripted soldier to hide on the train, receiving assistance and hindrance from various train staff.

ASIDE: Clearly refusing to decide between the translation for “conductor” or “steward”, the translator leaves a recurring single word of Russian in the text throughout – provodnitsa – to refer to the train staff, which is kind of jarring and also strangely unnecessary: we have words in English for people who work on a train, then again is public transport in the USA so unfamiliar to Archipelago’s presumed readership that an untranslated word in anglicised Russian is easier to understand than the concept of someone whose job is to look after the comfort, cleanliness and safety of people travelling on a train? (then again it says the translator lives in Toronto in their bio, and they have trains in Canada that basically run the same way as trains do here in Europe, so I don’t necessarily think it’s an overreach to expect translation of the word (then again I just googled it and it seems to be a “thing”, not translating the word for staff on the Trans-Siberian railway, which is incredibly puzzling?))) then again then again then again then again 

Although Eastbound doesn’t contain the steamy shagathon between the bored 30-something and the depressed near-child the narrative leads a prurient reader to expect, the frisson is very much there, and the swapping of clothes – to hide the lad (including the woman giving the lad the shirt she is wearing, which is her (age-appropriate) Russian boyfriend’s shirt) – offers symbolic sharing of skin, changing of outfits… and surely the bit between removing clothes and putting clothes back on is the least sexy bit anyway, ammaright???

With the removal of his military uniform and one of the train staff helping to distract the soldiers looking for the hiding one, the narratorial position is very clear and in-line with the positions of the principal characters. It’s also a position – I imagine – the vast majority of de Kerangal’s readers will agree with: it is unethical and cruel to force people into military service.

The patterns and cycles of toxic masculinity – physical and psychological abuse – are depicted not only by the intra-conscript violence that opens the story, but also by the deserting lad needing to threaten an 8-year-old boy who almost exposes him in the final moments before the conscripts leave the train for their stop (which is not the end of the line).

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Are any of us free, while others around us are not?

Can any of us claim to be ethical and good, when enforced violence occurs in so many places worldwide?

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This novel takes on more potency reading this during the continued Russian invasion of Ukraine, which – one hopes – will no longer be ongoing by the time this book is published in early 2023, (almost exactly a year to the day from the beginning of this war).

Russians – and even more as of today (21st September 2022)have been conscripted to fight in this unjustifiable invasion, and though I don’t know enough about recent internal Russian politics, I know enough to know that the experience depicted in this novel is now a very very real thing that will be happening – right now – to young (predominantly working class) men in that country: there are Russian men dying right now because of decisions they are unable to appeal without being the victims of legal censure. This is a bad situation. One can acknowledge the horrors of this war and its effects on the people of Ukraine while also acknowledging that the Russian men – boys – dying there are also victims, too, and the men being jailed for refusing to fight are also victims, too. The Russian state may well be a villain – but that doesn’t mean that every individual Russian is, too.

Conscription is a gross evil wherever it happens, and just because no British, Canadian, French or Germans have been conscripted into war since the 1940s (I believe) and no Americans have been since the invasion of Vietnam, doesn’t exculpate “us” (“the West”) from the cruelty of this scenario.

We all have responsibility as humans to do what we can to stop inequitable social structures from existing, something that feels less immediate when me and my peers, “us”, “we”, aren’t at risk of being forced into war at present just because of our age or by virtue of our genitalia. Alas, there are countries that still have military conscription/national service, and in many of the places where this happens it’s is no longer a “dicks only thing”, but I think that doesn’t make it better. Military conscription without gender bias is not a good thing either! There is no true equality when we are othering people, which is the entire fucking point of military service. Yeah, it’s great that women are allowed to be considered people now, too, yeah, but any state-sanctioned “us” and “them” is a step in the direction of dehumanisation and the violence that foregone empathy permits.

We are not absolved of our national shame because we no longer force everyone to learn how to kill.

It is easy – and commonplace – to paint Russia as systemically “more evil” and “more corrupt” than our own countries in “the west”, and though on a socio-personal level, “we” are more tolerant of queerness and of multicultural, multiethnic cities than Russia is [citation needed], but just because we have some progressive rights [currently] enshrined in law, that doesn’t mean there is the broad social consensus that they should be, and America’s – and my own scumhole England’s – continued bureaucratic destruction of these hard-won rights and legal protections continues on apace.

Maybe it is arguably good for comfortable “us” to read a novel right now that humanises the young, white, heterosexual, male – Russian – victims of oppressive state action, but there’s also something a tad regressive about this, too.

Yes, of course it is absolutely fucking terrible that young men are compelled to engage in violence and/or train for the potential of violence and therefore have the fear of violence intentionally and deliberately trained out of them, but there remains a – sometimes begrudging – level of prestige, of positive feeling, towards people who “fight for their country”.

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As a novel, Eastbound offers some beautiful descriptions of landscape, of mountain, taiga, plain, river, and it inspired me to Google some pictures of the very beautiful Lake Baikal, and made me want to take a long train journey again.

The portraits Eastbound offers of its two distinct – though collaborating – protagonists are emotive and engaging, and it’s a pleasant – if not perfect – novella. It’s very very French, and I mean that as a compliment (this time).

There’s trains, corruption, trying to be good, travel, the inconsistencies of expectation and reality, love, desire, regret: this short novel contains a lot of big themes, and is absolutely worth the couple of hours it takes to read.

I’d recommend it. Though, of course, I don’t know how well I – or anyone else – will be feeling about sympathetic literary portraits of young Russian conscripts on the anniversary of this current war when this book is released to the public.

Pre-order Eastbound from archipelago books via this link.


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