When life and story intersect: that’s where this story takes place. (And isn’t that the best place ever to set a story?)
But, okay, in the beginning, when readers step aboard That Night’s Train, they are actually in a railway carriage.
“The train went clickety-click, clickety-clack and came out of the darkness.
The young woman opened her book again. Just before she turned the page, she turned to the little girl and smiled.
“If my mother were alive, she would be reading me a story now,” Banafsheh said.”
Banafsheh is travelling with her grandmother, but she meets a teacher, the young woman with a book, and Banafsheh wishes she had a book with her too.
Usually, the woman says, she has more than one of her books with her, but she checks her purse and she does not have them with her today.
That phrase doesn’t necessarily strike the reader on first reading, but the young woman actually means her own books, the ones that she has written.
She is a writer. She shapes stories. Sometimes she even reads her works-in-progress to her students.
“The children listening to this story were in the fifth grade. The last bits of winter snow were falling. The children’s eyes were glued to the lips of the teacher, who was warming her hands over the classroom heater.
‘Excuse me, miss, but what happened next?’ one student asked.”
(The translation from the Persian is by Majid Saghafi: the prose is crisp, uncluttered. Like the illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault, also stark and exact.)
The student does not receive a clear answer. Instead, the teacher asks more questions.
One of the problems that the teacher is having, when it comes to resolving the next stage of the story that she is writing, is that particular elements in her life have left her unsettled. And she, in turn, has upturned events in the lives of others, leaving them unsettled too.
“What is important to her is that she finds a clue in some conversation or between the lines of all these various tales that could explain why she is feeling so strange. Even more important, she must be able to carry on with her story.”
The line between life and art is blurry. One of the things that has happened is that she has received a letter. It might be from a character in one of her books: that, too, is unclear.
“Another thing to consider — even though some might find this quite upsetting — is that she is capable of anything, no matter how cruel, if it will make a good ending for her story.”
When one thinks of railroads, one thinks of lines like the Canadian Pacific, which joined the nation of Canada, sea to sea: direct, immobile, beginning-to-end-and-back-again.
But the track in Ahmad Akbarpour’s That Night’s Train (2012) is like the one in Isabelle Arsenault’s cover illustration, complete with meanderings and loop-de-loops.
The author indeed might be capable of anything for a good ending to a story, including some unexpected diversions and authoritarian influence applied at critical junctures.
If you see the line between reality and fiction as blurry, you will want a ticket to ride this train. All aboard.
Day 13 of 45: Iranian author Ahmad Akbarpour’s work is new-to-me, although Groundwood also publishes Good Night, Commander (Illustrated by: Morteza Zahedi Translators: Helen Mixter, Shadi Eskandani). This is the last of three books on this theme and it was an unexpected pleasure: tomorrow, a fresh theme. More than a quarter of the way through this reading project, I am beginning to squirm because I know that all the books stacked here won’t fit into the remaining days: tough choices!