The following exchange, two chapters into this novella, takes place between Andrei (the story’s protagonist) and his friend Kahn:
“What is the ‘Yellow Arrow?” Khan repeated. “Where are we?”
He turned Andrei to face the window, and Andrei saw the tops of the trees hurtling past the window from left to right.
“Hang on,” said Andrei, “hang on.”
He clutched his head in his hands and sat down on the bunk bed.
“I remember,” he said. “The ‘Yellow Arrow’ is a train traveling towards a ruined bridge. The train we’re riding in.”
This comes as no surprise to the reader; the book’s blurb explains that The Yellow Arrow (1993) is a Russian train. The passengers, though, have to work at remembering what they are; at best they are wholly indifferent to their status as passengers. And it appears they’ve been on the train for ages. This particular exchange between Andrei and Kahn begins with Kahn noting that nothing new is going on, while Andrei wonders “where the last five years went”. It is painfully obvious that they are on a train, a whole city or nation traveling in a train with an infinite number of carriages. Victor Pelevin does not hide the reality of the train from the passengers. This isn’t a plot where the reader has access to certain information that the passengers are not privy to. There are compartments and conductors and cars. Most reading material, especially the magazines are written for people who live on trains. A favorite book is Boris Pasternak’s Early Trains. Special drinks are labeled “Railroad Special”. A popular song is “Train on Fire”. Seems The Yellow Arrow shares a border lobby with another nation-train. There is a booming trade in locomotive parts and fittings. The Upper Bunk Theater’s production of Armored Train One-Sixteen-Five-Eleven is considered avant-garde. For Pete’s sake, they dispose of their dead by throwing the corpses out of compartment windows. To top it all of, occasionally the train stops but nobody gets off. Nobody.
Andrei and Khan again:
“I’m a passenger right now,” he said. “And so are you”.
“A normal passenger never thinks of himself as a passenger,” said Khan. “So if you know you’re a passenger, you no longer are one. They could never imagine that it’s possible to get off this train. Nothing else exists for them, apart from the train.
The Yellow Arrow is a dark, comic tale with absurdist and fantastic elements. But it is also frightfully realistic. Widely viewed as a metaphor for post-Communist Russia, it portrays a society that accepts everything without questioning anything. This sublime novella implicates us all. It urges us to dissent more, not dissention for its own sake, but because deep down we know better. We know how it ought to be.
For Andrei, Khan and other passengers who ponder their existence:
“It doesn’t matter in the least whether anything else exists apart from our train. What matters is that we can live as though there is something else. As though it really is possible to get off. That’s the only difference. But if you try to explain that difference to any of the passengers, they won’t understand.”
The Yellow Arrow is a delight to read. I’m fascinated and bewitched by Pelevin’s mind. Years ago, I let slip to a Russian colleague that Mikhail Bulgakov is my favorite Russian writer. She was so impressed. I think her estimation of me went up a couple of levels. See, the extra benefits of reading world literature :). She then suggested that I take a look at Victor Pelevin, a contemporary writer whose works most reminds her of Bulgakov’s novels. She kindly gave me a copy of Pelevin’s Buddha’s Little Finger. Of course, after such endorsement, I bought two novellas, The Yellow Arrow and Omon Ra. I really shouldn’t have waited so long to start reading Victor Pelevin. And if what I’ve described here appeals to you, then you should sample his works as well.
On the translation: The novella is translated from the original Russian by Andrew Browmfield. It’s good, can’t fault anything. Tellingly, the translation retain the story’s humor.