I heard May-Lan Tan at the literature festival this year and was intrigued by the story she began reading. The library very helpfully provided me with a copy of 'Things to Make and Break'. They are slightly disturbing stories, mostly about very vulnerable people. Many of her protagonists are children, often trying to make sense of the mysteries of adulthood: a young girl wanting to meet the stranger that her mum is going on a date with, two children called Lauren who both lose a parent, another young girl who has an abortion and has to watch her sister enjoying parenthood. One quote from a story about Jimmy and Erin, friends negotiating the challenges of adolescence together:
"They take off their shoes and leave them outside on the rack. The hall light is on and her parents' door is open. Erin goes to talk to them.
Jimmy stop in the bathroom to wash the Sharpie Xs off the backs of her hands. She doesn't have a curfew, but they never stay at hers because she lives up at the far corner of Hoboken and shares a room with little twin sisters who never shut up. Erin lives six blocks from the station and has a queen-size bed. She says Jimmy's lucky, but Jimmy thinks curfews are nice, in a way. It means someone else is the adult.
The ink isn't coming off. Even though Erin didn't get X-ed tonight, she didn't try and get served; she never risks it unless they're in some nowhere dive. She's honestly the only person Jimmy knows who can pull off a fake ID. At seventeen, Erin looks fourteen, but she always wears a full face of makeup and a push-up bra and dresses neck to toe in black, so the glamour quotient kind of throws it off. Jimmy has never worn a bra of any kind, and she's had her period twice so far. She hopes some of Erin's girlness will rub off on her." (p.169-170 from New Jersey)
At the end of the same event I was chatting to a young man who recommended Rosa Liksom. Well, I didn't remember her name but I remembered she was Finnish and wrote short stories, so I googled that (isn't the internet wonderful). The library also had one of hers. 'Compartment No.6' was definitely a bit of culture shock. I did, many years ago, travel across eastern Germany by train, and it was something of a similar experience, though that was only a day, compared to this journey, that seems to go on for weeks. A young woman, apparently escaping a strange relationship in Moscow, finds herself sharing a train compartment with a hard drinking ex-soldier who regales her with lurid tales of violence and sexual conquest. We learn little about her though the story follows her more closely, and he comes across as a rather archetypal Russian, stubbornly loyal to his country in spite of the privations and indignities that have been inflicted upon him in the name of progress. It is quite a vivid portrayal of the Russian character, explaining why the country has continued to function in spite of, rather than because of, communism and its subsequent collapse.
"The man sat on his bed. He wore a plaid shirt open over his white longjohns. Under the wrinkles of the white shirt peeped a sweaty muscular belly. He picked up a small orange from the table and started to tear roughly at the peel. When he'd eaten the fruit he dug a tattered newspaper from under his bunk and blurted out from behind it in an irritated tone, 'People are restless when they're young. No patience at all. Always rushing somewhere. Everything goes at its own pace. Time is just time.'
He wrinkled his brow and sighed.
'Look at me. An old duffer, a melancholy soul filled with a dull calm. A heart that beats out of sheer habit, with no feelings in it any more. no more pranks in him, not even any pain. Just dreariness.' " (p.15)
As a seasoned traveller the man takes her under his wing and between them a kind of bond forms.
"A fire-red afternoon sun spread over the wind-whipped sky. Behind it dripped vast sheets of sleet. The girl rummaged in her knapsack, the man set the table for dinner. they ate slowly and silently, drinking well-steeped tea - black, Indian Elephant tea she'd bought at the foreign exchange shop. After the meal the man would have liked to talk but she wanted to be quiet. He took his knife out from under his pillow and started to scratch the back of his ear with it. She rested with her eyes closed. And that's how they travelled that whole long twilit evening, each of them sleeping and waking in their own time." (p.80)
The story paints a picture of him and as they travel it also paints a picture of Russia, though there is not much light it in. They stop at random places along the way to 'rest' the engine, but they are either told they cannot get off, or the carriage attendant tells them the place is not worth seeing. There are some lengthy descriptions of decay and neglect as they crawl across the frozen wastes towards Mongolia. When they cross the border they leave it all behind; the final sentence here is repeated at several points throughout the book, symbolising something I felt, but what, I was left to ponder:
"The Soviet Union is left behind, the Lenin statues and portraits, the watercolour paintings of deserted shores on a foam-flecked stormy sea, the mechanics, oil workers, wretched men working on kolkhozes, miners, address and phone-number kiosks, the monuments to the Revolution, the dance pavilions in the parks, the old couples swaying to the beat of a mournful waltz with fur hats on their heads, the stair brooms, entryway brooms, cabin brooms, chamber brooms, cellar brooms, pavement brooms, barn brooms, stable brooms, bathroom brooms, front yard brooms, back yard brooms, garden brooms, well brooms, the old ladies wrapped in big black cardigans with dusty leggings and threadbare slippers on their feet, lackadaisically swinging their wilted brooms. ...
The clocks on the walls in the street lobbies of Moscow's official buildings, telling the time, the cabinets of experts, the factory party committees, secret gambling dens, clandestine home concerts, art exhibitions in artists' studios, the local committees, sentry booths, blini booths, biscuit booths, patched roofs, houses collapsed under the snow, the millions of peasants who died of hunger, the city dwellers, the workers, the millions in prisons, the loyal citizens broken down by work camps and labour sites who died of cold, the denunciations, the Party tyranny, the choiceness elections, the election fraud, the grovelling and inordinate mendacity, the millions fallen in useless wars, the men, women and children executed at the edge of mass graves, the millions of Soviet citizens that the machine had abused, tortured, mistreated, neglected, trampled, cowed, humiliated, oppressed, terrorised, cheated, raised on violence, made to suffer, are all left behind. The Soviet Union, a tired, dirty country, is left behind, and the train plunges into nature, throbs across the sandy, desert landscape. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts." (p.143-144)