“The Wandering Train”

This week’s piece of weird fiction from LibraryThing’s Deep Ones discussion.

Review: “The Wandering Train”, Stefan Grabinski, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski, 1919. 

In some ways, this is a simple story. It doesn’t even have any real characters except the titular train.

The story opens at the Horsk train station just before the holidays. We get a description of the passengers and the railroad employees going about their work.

Yet, we’re told the careful observer would note something is wrong:

One could deduce this from the nervous, exaggerated gestures of the railwaymen and their restless glances and anticipating faces. Something had broken down in the previously exemplary system. Some unhealthy, terrible current circulated along its hundredfold-branched arteries, and it permeated to the surface in half-conscious flashes.

There is something new, some unexpected element in a domain where

everything had been calculated, weighed, measured – everything, though complex, had not passed human understanding.

It seems the railwaymen worry about an accident. A train of unknown origin and certainly not accounted for in the schedule has been seen at various points in the system. Each time, it’s been closer to the regular trains. Is an accident inevitable?

This has been going on for a month. 

A train heads into the station, the faces of the passengers eagerly awaiting disembarking.

Then, suddenly, the mystery train shows up. It’s on the same track as the train that just pulled into the station.

And it’s not slowing down. What kind of madman is the engineer?

The order is given for the newly arrived train to try to reverse and avoid or mitigate a collision, and the crowd of passengers storms the exits to escape the pending accident.

Which never happens.

The mysterious train is sort of a ghost. It simply passes through the other train.

But the passengers are altered:

So they stand and are silent; no muscle will twitch, no eyelid will fall. So they stand and are silent … .

Because through them has passed a most strange breath, because they have been touched by a great awakening, because they are already … insane … .

But the passengers quickly recover. And so does the railroad.

The last line is “The signals were operating”.

On one level, it’s just a simple ghost train. We don’t even get an origin story for it.

Lipinski, in his introduction to the collection, suggest this is another of Grabinski’s stories about Henri Bergson’s “élan vital – that spiritual force, or energy, that underlies reality and influences matter.”

That’s certainly a possible reading for what the train represents. It is a force that cannot be contained or calculated in the confines of the complex railroad system. It exists outside it. It’s not the remnant of some earthly invention or a leftover human soul. Taking the form of man’s then most complicated invention, entering into his most complicated transportation network, hints that it is the same force that animated man to invent those things.

But I wonder if there isn’t another allegory at work, a political one.

This story would have appeared after the cataclysm of World War One.

 Like the war bursting in on the well-ordered world of the Belle Epoch, the ghost train disrupts the railroad of this story. Grabinski may have been thinking along the lines of A.J.P. Taylor who maintained that railroad timetables dictated the mobilization, especially Germany’s, that led to war. (Taylor published his theory in 1969.)

The allegory theory breaks down, though, in that the ghost train doesn’t kill or injure anyone. Its devastation is not akin to war.

On the other hand, World War One for Grabinksi’s native Poland was not an unmitigated disaster. It led to its renewed independence, and, perhaps, that explains the last line of the story. The railroad is running again. The system, the entity of a self-governing Poland is operating again too.

As the shock of the ghost train passing through them disturbs, temporarily, the passengers, the war disturbed Poland, but it also relieved them of foreign occupation. (But what are we to make of the idea of insanity if Grabinski’s is presenting this political allegory?)

I liked this story mainly for the beginning, the detailed disruption in the railroad and anxiety in its employees. However, I did find the end a bit of a letdown.

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