Friday, January 09, 2009

Night Trains

Arthur Chrenkoff was well known in the rightosphere for his blog. He collected the upbeat war news, missing from the MSM. He was no Pollyanna, but kept his eyes focused on the fact that even during the worst days, some encouraging things were happening. Children were going back to school. Electricity was being reconnected despite sabotage. Whole areas of Iraq and Afghanistan had persistent peace.

He stopped blogging in 2005 to finish his graduate studies in Australia, as well as finish his first novel, Night Trains. Chrenkoff was born in Poland and lived there until 1987 – he captures the WWII Central European setting remarkably. He would attribute this to the stagnation behind the Iron Curtain until it fell. Trains, infrastructure, and even attitudes did not change as much in those forty years as on the outside.

The book’s other setting is present-day Australia. It is a sci-fi time-travel novel, rather a Schindler’s List crossed with The Iowa Baseball Confederacy*. Night trains, steam trains visible only to a few and not often, take riders from modern Australia to central Europe of the 1930’s and 40’s. The familiar reluctant hero, drawn not by sense of adventure or desire for cosmic justice, begins to help the Allied war effort – the escape of Jews from the Nazis in particular. It is simple decency. A modern non-hero who knows with certainty the extent of the Holocaust, helps those who are trying to excape from among those who disbelieve or half-believe in the danger.

The Grandfather Paradox of time travel – whether affecting the lives of those in your own history affects you in the present – takes on a new twist here. In fact, the time contradictions keep on taking a new twist throughout the novel. The consequences of actions across time drive the plot. Close to the very end, the reader is still uncertain how the final twist will work and who will be affected. We know that things will work out – it seems that sort of book - and which final few meetings by characters will be key, but method remains dark. The morality of actions which have contradictory effects in time leaves several characters with ambiguous choices.

The mood is dark and sometimes violent. Chrenkoff’s ability to capture atmosphere is as good as his ability to give progressive quarter-twists to the plot as we go.

There are a few weaknesses. Chrenkoff scants conversation in favor of description, which keeps the action too much in the main character’s head. One particular twist of the grandfather paradox, which gives Chrenkoff his dramatic and frightening first few paragraphs, is simply not convincing. It is not developed or explained, and seems to be an evil that pops out like an animatron at an amusement park ride rather than an essential evil. Lastly, I disliked the stereotypical portrayal of the psychiatric clinic. I don’t know the laws of confinement in Australia, but there is simply no relation to the American system in the events which take place there.

Still, those are fairly minor quibbles, easily ignorable in this fascinating book.

* The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by WP Kinsella bears similarities to his more-famous Shoeless Joe, from which “Field of Dreams” was adapted.

No comments: