The Train of Their Departure – David Bezmozgis – Narrative Distance

The Train of Their Departure” by David Bezmozgis depends on distance.  Set in the late 70’s and early 80’s in the Soviet Union, the excerpt focuses on a love triangle between Polina, her husband Maxim, and her lover Alec.  Throughout much of the piece, there is a distance between the characters in how they relate to one another and to themselves.

This distance can be seen in lines like, “It was not something she had planned in advance, but neither was it entirely spontaneous,” and also in, “All this time, unbeknownst to them, the train of their departure was approaching, at first distant and barely audible, but gaining momentum with every passing week.”

What does this distance communicate?  Does it mesh with our perceptions of Cold War Soviet life?  Does it make Polina and Alec less responsible for their actions?  Are we to see them as figures haphazardly moving through the dictates of their life?  On the other hand, what would be accomplished if, so to speak, the camera was closer and we really felt the character’s emotions?  It seems like part of Polina’s makeup is someone who tends to be calculating and trends toward coldness over warmth.  She’s attracted to Alec, because he has no ambition and has embraced mediocrity.  Her husband is less privileged than Alec, but is drawn to the nonsense of the Communist Party and believes he can advance his career.

Changing the narrative perspective, would have an affect on the character of Polina.  Even though the story is not told entirely from her perspective, it is her story.  One downfall of this distance is that it also alienates the reader.  The first five pages are all back story.  Without the closeness and emotion, it’s hard to care about Polina’s past.  By the time we are brought into the present and Alec enters the picture the reader may already have checked out.

What ways are there to convey that information while keeping the necessary distance, and the reader’s attention?  As far as excerpts go, this isn’t the most captivating, but depending which direction the narrative goes it could be an intriguing novel.

Q&A with David Bezmozgis.

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