September 17, 2012

"The Last Few Kilometres"

By Leonid Tsypkin
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
~1600 words

In the former Soviet Union, a man returns home on the train after a ponderous encounter with his mistress.

Written in 1972, the story does a superb job of capturing the dreary Soviet cityscape, from "clusters of identical white high-rises" to abandoned lots filled with "car bodies, stacks of logs, or rusted constructions of unknown purpose" to "puffs of bluish-gray smoke" suspended above factories.

The two main characters, who remain unnamed throughout the narrative, are part and parcel of the cheerless world they inhabit, and it is fitting that the images of the blighted landscape that roll past the train windows mingle and merge in the man's mind (the perspective is his throughout) with the memories of his visit to his mistress:
"Oy, don't look, please, the place is so awful," she said, setting a dish of steaming chicken and rice on the table; it was more or less the same thing she said when he undressed her.
The blini were tasty—best of all, you didn't have to chew them much. He'd left his removable denture at home so that it wouldn't interfere with the moment of pleasure.
She pulled on her black slip, her whole body writhing like a snake, as though she were performing some Indian dance—she always put it on that way. He had finally lit a cigarette, and, watching her, was trying to figure out whether he'd make the train.
The other passengers on the train are "dark, immobile figures" more akin to "symbols of people." The only joy seems to come from the western-style rock music that emanates from a portable tape recorder on the lap of young male passenger. In the midst of the bleakness, however, the musical ecstasy seems "fake, deliberately put on."

The story has virtually no narrative tension or character development, but there is something appropriate about that lack. It is a static portrayal of a static society that stops rather than ends, just as the train on which the main character is traveling appears to run out of steam. If the piece went on past this point it would be problematic, but Tsypkin is clearly a master in full control of his form.

More tableau than story, "The Last Few Kilometres" is a brilliant portrait of a walking corpse of a nation. Jamey Gambrell's translation does a fine job of polishing this little gem.

Outstanding. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "The Last Few Kilometres" to be ___.

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