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Victor Pelevin: Жёлтая стрела (The Yellow Arrow)

Trains have played a key role in Russian literature. Think of Anna Karenina and Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). In addition to Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago), there are a few other Russian novels on my website, where trains play a role: Чапаев (Chapaev), Дон Домино (Zero Train) and Москва — Петушки (UK: Moscow Circles; US: Moscow to the End of the Line). While trains are certainly not unique to Russian literature, doubtless because of the long distances and the poor quality of the roads they play a greater part than in the literature of most other countries. In two of those novels – Дон Домино (Zero Train) and Москва — Петушки (UK: Moscow Circles; US: Moscow to the End of the Line) – the railway acts as a metaphor for life in Russia and this is clearly the case with this book.

The Yellow Arrow of the title is the name of a train, though we first meet it when Andrei, the protagonist of this book, ruminates on the yellow arrows of the sun’s rays, that have travelled millions of miles only to dissipate on his breakfast table. Andrei is a passenger on the train, as are all the other characters in the book. We (and they) do not know where it has come from and all we know about its destination is that it is travelling to a ruined bridge. We gradually learn that the passengers do not recall getting on the train, can no longer hear the noise of the train’s wheels, do not know where it is going and cannot (and do not want to) get off. Indeed, the train never stops, so there is no easy way to get off.

The lucky ones have sleeper compartments, which they share with others. Andrei, for example, shares with Petr Sergeievich, who snores and reminisces about the past. Others are less fortunate and live in communal compartments, waiting for spaces to become available in sleeper compartments. As the train is an allegory on contemporary Russia, clearly bribing the guard is the best way to get a compartment. People do die and then, with some difficulty, a window is opened and the body, sometimes with a few of the late owner’s possessions, is jettisoned out, which is also the way of disposing of rubbish. Indeed, as the train is very, very long, Andrei often sees the rubbish thrown out by those in carriages further forwards. Corruption is rife. One of Andrei’s friends, is, with the help of the staff (bribes, again) collecting all the spoons to sell the aluminium and is planning to do the same with the copper ashtrays. As a result, there is a shortage of spoons. Andrei’s friends also deals in two important commodities: cigarettes and alcohol.

Though he gets on well enough with Petr Sergeievich, he does have other friends, in addition to the black marketeer. He met Khan on the roof. (It is possible to climb on the roof, where people go for no reason than to get a bit of fresh air.) One man, however, does take advantage of a river crossing and dives into the river. He seems to survive. Khan and Andrei have philosophical discussions. Khan posits that if you recognise that you are a passenger – which most people do not – then you cease to be one. Only when you cease to be one can you possibly consider leaving the train. Andrei does not accept this. He comes across a book about the Indian railways and it seems to mirror the Russian train, with no-one able to get off.

Is there life off the train? Andrei has seen footprints in the snow outside but has never seen people. Others maintain that there is no life off the train which is, after all, enormous. The train has food, drink, entertainment (there is even a theatre on board), religion (there is a sort of train religion) and the opposite sex. However, now the issue has been raised by Khan, Andrei wants to get off. He is not sure why. I want to get off the train while I am alive. I know this is impossible, but I want to do it, because to want anything else is sheer madness. But the train never stops.

Whether we take this as a metaphor for pre- or post-Soviet Russia does not matter, though the characters seem to be more or less contemporary, i.e. of the 1990s when this book was written. What it does show is that, at least in that period, it was difficult to get out of Russia and not necessarily desirable, at least in the sense that most people had come to accept their fate and did not want to challenge it. As a metaphor/allegory, it works well, particularly given the role of trains in Russian literature and life.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Valgrius
First published 1996 in English by New Directions
Translated by Andrew Bromfield