Book Club: June 2023 by Hana Zittel

Book Club
By Hana Zittel
Published Issue 114, June 2023

Eastbound by Maylis de Kerangal, Translated from French
by Jessica Moore (2023)

Speeding along on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a train is packed with a range of riders, from first class tourists to a car packed with soldiers on the way to an unknown destination. Among those soldiers, 20-year-old Aliocha is anxiously starting to spiral about his bleak outlook as a soldier in the Russian military. Looking for reprieve in the stifling train car, he sees a space near a back window open up and snatches it only to be assaulted by fellow soldiers claiming he’s “hogging the window.” They move to rough him up and Aliocha fights back, taking one in the face. Returning to his bunk, he considers his options to escape a worsening situation. “Monotonous rolling, cyclical clicking, axels warming up, shrieks of metal and, if you listen close, you’d also hear — like a tiny soundtrack woven into this hellhole — the torment of Aliocha’s heart …”

Settling on desertion, he moves through train cars, trying to go unnoticed. He asks a car attendant where the next stop is, hoping she doesn’t rat him out to his sergeant. His attempt to desert during the first stop is thwarted by his own doubt, and he reboards the train to make a better plan. Entering into the compartment he spots a woman he noticed at the last station. He can tell she’s not Russian and they exchange glances, then names, and somehow, without shared language, Aliocha persuades Hélène, a French woman escaping her own predicament, to help him find a way out of his hopeless circumstance.

Maylis de Kerangal’s Eastbound was written in 2012, long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but radiates the desperation, despair and brutality of the Russian military. While capturing these characters scrambling for a way out, she builds  the immense and wild landscape of Siberia into the scene, creating an intriguing contradiction of being completely trapped in one of the most vast environments on Earth.

The most recent translation after Painting Time and The Cook, Eastbound displays de Kerangal’s skill in taking small, subtle and often contained stories and blending them out into elegant cinematic tales with her unmatched, rhythmic prose.

The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom
by Magdalena Zurawski (2019)

Magdalena Zurawski’s second poetry collection moves effortlessly through musings on writing, seemingly random thoughts, and what feels very much like a collage of concepts poured into varied structures and forms. In an interview on the collection Zurawski claims, “I don’t begin a poem because I want to say something about X,Y, or Z. I begin a poem because I feel like making something out of words. That’s the feeling — the itch — I want to make something out of words and I usually look for piles of words somewhere else to make things out of.”

In the poem, It’s Hard to Be a Saint, she writes:

“I was sympathetic to language, but often

it shrugged me and kept other lovers.

I crawled through the commas of

Romanticism and rejected the rhythms,

though sometimes at night I could feel

a little sad. I could emerge now

into a new kind of style, but the market

is already flooded and my people

have lost faith in things meant to land

To enter into each of the poems in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom is letting go of prescribed poetic themes and embracing the ability to take each line as it comes and digest the images they build and stories they tell. Zurawski’s collection is unique in its ability to discard common means of poetry creation, resulting in a feeling of authenticity and chaos.

Her first poetry collection, Companion Animal, was the winner of the 2016 Norma Farber First Book Award and her novel, The Bruise, won the 2008 Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction. 

Hana Zittel is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in addition to being a librarian at the Denver Zine Librarian. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and pretty much just likes being outside with her pup when she has some free time, and reading, that might have been assumed though.

Check out Hana’s May Book Club in case you missed it, or head to our Explore section to see more of her past reviews.

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