Rythme ralenti, le train crie. Un homme ouvre la porte sur cette vitesse qui s’amenuise, saute sur la voie à peine arrêté. Hoquette et repart. Le tableau par la vitre décorée des vestiges d’une dernière pluie cristallisée par l’enveloppe de pollution ambiante : le soleil. Lent, rose, jaune effilé par des nuages bas, il accompagne les cheminées d’usine éteintes. Les cris se renouvellent : rencontre. Les visages, un par un, tournés vers ce cinéma de paysage, nous observent avant de prendre un autre virage.

6.52.6.52.6.52…The luminous white numbers keep blinking. A long, drawn out skull-seizing squeal, foretold by the blinking 6.52, makes a 40ish years old woman suddenly drop her glossy paper to press her fingers on temples: Ostrava-Stodolní, train station.

Here, where all the numerous clocks hung on walls and steeples never match each other[1], there is a time that still never quite changes. In every city this time is essentially the same for everyone, building our days like rowhouses. “Depuis qu’il existe des chemins de fer, la nécessité de ne pas manquer le train, nous a appris à tenir compte des minutes,” Proust writes[2]. Minutes thread into each other in their logical sequence of numbers; no time stretch anymore, no possible roaming either other than that of your phone, the wandering of modern time.

City rhythm regulated by train and tramway timetables, connections and stations: it’s our rhythm too. Moving to the daily timetable of the underground, buses, tramways and other trains, we are at once forced to act in accordance with this urban regulation, and creating the so specific landscape’s body which gives away a place’s secrets. Somehow this restriction of our movements enlarges the possibilities of new discoveries, as where the train — and other public vessels — don’t go, there is a space that is barely explored: what lies behind the train station we get to daily? We don’t know. We just jump on the train in order to reach our destination. No Prose of the Transsiberian anymore: the particular state of being still and moving at the same time, meshing our landscape in new perceptions, seems to have lost its charms in the everyday life.

However here, in a country owning no fewer than 25 trains museums for 78 870 km2 (in comparison, Australia owns three for 7 692 024 km²) which gives the fair amount of 0, 0003 museum per km2, the train is part of the Czech equation. Developed during the First World War, the name of the state company changed with the events of history: first Czechoslovakian then Czech, since 2003 the České Dráhy has been an independent company competing with newer ones — faster and cheaper but travelling only on main routes. Here, the train is not so much about the discovery of a new landscape- owning something peculiar anywhere in the world — rather about cultivating an indoor landscape… Like on Proust’s petit chemin de fer d’intérêt local,[3] the train is still able to cross countryside at a slow pace, stitching even the tiniest villages together. Sometimes, the only visible being is the station officer, his red cap contrasting with the trees enveloping the path that disappears in the woods on both sides of the railway…Thus its slow pace shortens the distance between people, becoming a familiar lieu of encounters; a living space and a space to live where you could easily picture some surrealist Setkání a návštěvy[4] taking place.

A onze heures et demie du matin, l’ampoule électrique observa la scène suivante : le chef de gare tomba amoureux de sa femme telle qu’il la découvrit penchée à la fenêtre du premier ![5]

More than its well-known feature as a “literary device” for writers[6], the train is here merely the place for living stories where everyone is part of the scene. Inside, our talks are framed by the same ritual: hang your jacket on the coat peg near the window, open the window because the heater is on too strong (yes, the windows are openable!), hear the whistle and the inspector closing the door (no, the door is not blocked!), and wait for the ink pad’s familiar sound, foreshadowing the inspector in his dark uniform, whose personality becomes familiar too with the time — the uniform only intensifying the traits.

And then indoor stories follow the outdoor scenery, adding or subtracting talkers along the way; following often here, in Moravia-Silesia, the syllabic shape of a river punctuated by factory smokestacks — Opavice, Ostravice, Moravice…[7] “The Ostravice is like hardened steel” said Leoš Janaček[8], witnessing its singular weaving of trees, steeples and chimneys.

Only sometimes the connection is missed – faces behind the windows passing by, death mute stories carried by the singing rails:

Deux rails – nous fuyons
Ne sachant rien l’un de l’autre –
Toujours au service des autres
Jamais nous ne nous rencontrons.
[…]

Comme jadis nous dormons dans les vallées –
Nous conduisons, nous conduisons –
Parfois quelque chose nous fait chanter –
Quelque chose que nous ignorons.[9]

 

Notes

[1] Cf previous column: http://coldnoon.com/the-very-bearable-lightness-of-being/

[2] “Since the railways’ inception, the need not to miss the train taught us to take the minutes into account”. Sodome et Ghomorre, chp II, Proust.

[3] “I was going to take the railroad of local interest”. Proust. Sodome et Gomorrhe, Gallimard.

[4] Meetings and visits, short stories by Bohumil Hrabal, one of the most important Czech writers in the 20th century.

[5] “At eleven thirty in the morning, the light bulb noticed the following scene: the trainmaster fell in love with his wife as he discovered her bent over the first floor window!”. Bohumil Hrabal « Une maison rafraîchie par la foudre » in Rencontres et Visites, Robert Laffont.

[6] « The evening train is a literary device », David Berman says, in another part of this world.

[7] The prefix av- meaning « movement »

[8] Leoš Janáček, famous Czechoslovakian classical music composer born in Hukvaldy (Morava-Silesia), in Moje Lašsko, 22nd May 1928.

[9] Ondra Lysohorsky, « Rails », 2 avril 1934 – in Poèmes choisis, Pierre Seghers, Paris, 1962.

“Two tracks – we flee/ Not knowing anything about each other –/ Always serving others/Never do we meet […]/ As in olden times we sleep in valleys-/ we drive, we drive-/sometimes something makes us sing -/something that we do not know about”.

 

Agnes Andre

Agnes Andre

Agnes Andre holds a masters degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Stendhal Grenoble III (France) and currently teaches French as a second language in Czech Republic. She also collaborates regularly to nosenchanteurs.eu—the first French songs online magazine—and to different francophone newspapers such as Le Petit Journal de Berlin (Germany) or Le Dauphiné Libéré (France). She has recently won the 2nd Prize of the 2014 Literature contest “Femmes en Action” (Winnipeg).

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