If I was to do this sort of thing, I might award this novel by Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint my Book of the Year. In so doing, I’d explain, on behalf of the Institute’s Accolades Committee, how a book originally published in France in 2004 and released in its English translation in 2009, could somehow be eligible to receive so important a distinction in 2010 which, incidentally, if I was to do this other sort of thing, would be on a very short list of nominees for the greatest year there ever was. At least in my lifetime. Two thousand ten.
Running Away is a frenetic ride from Paris to Shanghai to Beijing to, finally, the island of Elba. The motivations and developments governing each step of the journey are often as cloudy and mysterious as the nameless narrator himself, driven from one page to the next by pure emotion and “dream-like pleasure, distant and hazy” (p. 54). The entire novel zips by in that same haze, the kind of jet-lagged confusion that makes a traveler look back on the last twenty-fours of transit — connections, disconnections, meetings, and meals — as if it happened to someone else, or to a younger you a lifetime ago. The narrator becomes that someone else, and even if we’ve never had similar experiences in our past from which to draw vague recollections (I’ve never been to China, so apart from the cities in Elba bearing sharp similarities to small towns along the Italian coast, I’m in uncharted territory), the emotions are all recognizable. We’ve all felt confusion mingled with fear, sadness drawn from loss, and, most significantly, passion sparked by spontaneity.
So this is where the novel took me on my own hazy time travel. A college history class on twentieth century Europe and a teaching assistant who was majoring in Chinese studies… who had spent a few summers there, was learning the language despite the obvious handicap his WASPy-looking upbringing must have created for him. I don’t remember exactly what he was talking about that day, nor do I want to search around for any kind of clarification or verification. I want his comments on the Chinese notion of “love” to live in my mind the way I remember them, vague and half-formed. Under constant construction.
He said (and, again, what he actually said is lost to time and since altered by my own imagination, so these are as much my words as his… maybe even more mine at this point) that the Chinese had something like seventeen different terms for love, compared to, for example, the three different terms in Greek and our measly one. One of the terms loosely translates as “love for someone you see on a train but know will never see again.”
That’s the only part of that class I still remember. That, and, I suppose, the thoroughly unispiring heft of an eighty dollar paperback textbook.
Our narrator in this novel, sent on an unspecified but seemingly illicit errand to Shanghai by Marie (his wife? lover?) meets Li Qi and, in the middle of the night, on a train speeding across the Chinese countryside en route to Beijing, the two have a moment of stolen passion. The rendezvous moves to a locked bathroom until interrupted by a phone call:
…I was listening to Marie speaking faintly in the early evening sunlight of Paris, her frail voice reaching me, sounding more or less the same as ever, in the late night of the train, literally transporting me, as thoughts, dreams, and books can do, when, releasing the mind from the body, the body remains still and the mind travels, swelling and expanding, while gradually, behind our closed eyes, images are born, and other memories, feelings, and states of being surge into view, pains and buried emotions are reawakened… and we feel ourselves shaken, as if a fissure had cracked the sea of tears frozen in each of us. (p. 44)
The news from Paris ignites the narrative: a motorcycle chase through Beijing, a bowling outing, airports and ferries, stone churches and stone paths, and the salty Mediterranean. The passion and longing, the (love), is fragmentary, just like every landscape and every construct our hero rushes through. The broken window on the train “whose absence had been so poorly repaired by a fluttering sheet of plastic held by a single strand of tape” (p. 34) and the visqueen-coated hotel “with beams, girders, and scaffolding rails piled here and there” (p. 55) are reminders of the constant construction of the human experience. Indeed, the only setting that displays completion is the summer home of Marie’s late father, “the old stone house… fixed up for her… an ancient garden pavilion that he’d restored, doing most of the work himself, the stonework, as well as the woodwork” (p. 116), a reflection of a life well-lived.
It’s a wild ride, this book. Vague and half-formed, like my memories of Chinese in translation. It even features a woman for whom the narrator may feel that fleeting, impossible love. And it begs the question: how much of our life, our constantly under-construction assemblage of emotions and reactions, do we recognize — from a train or otherwise — as being as impermanent as passion on a train.