End of the line

Sam Alexandroni

Published 14 August 2006

The Zero Train Yuri Buida Dedalus, 140pp, £6.99 ISBN 190351701X

In an unnamed location in Russia, among tracks and railroad sidings, a small community lives in isolation, its only purpose being to make sure the Zero Train runs on time. It's a top-secret train that never stops at the station, tearing past in the night every 24 hours, freighting hidden cargo to an unknown destination.

The central character is Ivan Ardabyev: loyal servant of the motherland, robust man of action and heart-throb of the line's jaded whores. His devotion to duty is unquestioning, but his jumbled recollections produce a sense of creeping delirium. Ardabyev sees the environment and people as industrial objects: the sky crumbles "like sodden paper over rusty rails"; prostitutes have "cast-iron nipples" and "rivets instead of navels".

Eventually, like its iron and steel counterparts, the community disintegrates. The curious are killed or lose their minds, and even staunch Ardabyev is destroyed, staying at his post long after the station is abandoned, unable to leave the only life he knows.

An anecdote about Beria, boss of Stalin's NKVD, provides the only concrete historical reference, but the setting could not be clearer: The Zero Train is a moving and original depiction of how, in Stalinist Russia, the individual was ground down with brutal indifference.


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