I MUST HAVE BEEN seven when I first realized that death meant stopping, forever. I had just read a magazine article about a disused railway line. This line had closed decades ago because its dangerous gradient caused disasters such as the runaway engine that overheated and jumped the rail at a viaduct. Twenty-eight passengers were killed, as well as 140 pigs on their way to market. I wish I’d been impressed by the sad fate of the passengers, or even of the pigs (whose days were numbered regardless, and who received the rare porcine honor of a mass grave): but what shocked me most was realizing that the branch line no longer existed, and would never (in all probability) exist again. It had passed out of this world eternally, like the unfortunate passengers and the pigs, and as I would, too. Thus I first understood death as a universal syndrome whose fundamental cause and symptom — to paraphrase the fictional General Larionov, one of the eponymous heroes of Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Solovyov and Larionov — is life.

Death and railways are the pervading motifs in this unusual, erratically brilliant book. General Larionov’s male relatives are all tsarist officers apart from his father, a railway department director who inculcates in his son an enduring respect for trains and train journeys. Vodolazkin tells us, “Railroad workers in Russia have a special mission because the role of the railroad in our country is not the same as in other places”; it simply takes longer to get from one place to another. In a passage less self-consciously synesthetic but still reminiscent of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, the child Larionov imagines his carriage’s motion as “an escape from a spellbound forest.” Much of Larionov’s adult career is shaped by his affection for, and belief in, railways. In the late 1910s, during the Russian Civil War, he becomes notorious for moving his troops around Crimea by rail, laying new track as required; he opts to live full-time in a carriage of his armored train; and a key turning point in the book’s imagined history takes place on a station platform.

This fascination with trains precedes and complements Larionov’s fascination with another kind of onward motion, “the transition from life to death.” Evoking Andrei Platonov’s thanatophile protagonists, for example the death-struck Komiagin in Happy Moscow, the general attempts to empathize with the deceased. A famous photograph shows Larionov trying out a coffin for size, apparently asleep; at the bitter end of the siege of Perekop in 1920, the general carries out a bizarre inspection of the dead defenders’ frozen, mutilated bodies, searching for “at least a shadow of what separates life from death.” And throughout his long life, he carries on a metaphysical conversation with his pharmacist (and former army captain) Kologrivov about what defines the biological state of death.

Yet despite Larionov’s peculiarities, he is remembered as a real hero. Long before he actually earned the title, his adoration of all things military and his precocious gravitas earned him the childhood nickname of “General.” He becomes the cadet too honest to sneak out of his dormitory; the White general who saves the entire Crimean peninsula by cutting off the Reds at Perekop; the born commander who ensures that the vast majority of his army is safely evacuated, and the remainder safely disguised. By refusing to follow his troops into exile, he out-Wrangels the historical General Wrangel, a universally respected figure who was the White forces’ last de facto leader. Most importantly for the plot, he is now the focus of innumerable academic essays and debates, a safe thesis topic for ambitious young graduate students. This is how Solovyov, the novel’s other hero, finds Larionov.

Although Solovyov shares a surname with a famous historian and an equally famous philosopher (a useful passport to the top table at conferences), he is essentially a callow youth from an obscure village, Kilometer 715, named after its distance from Moscow by rail. Trains rarely stop there, not even when Solovyov’s mother (a railway worker) is dying for want of a doctor. Solovyov starts college in St. Petersburg in the early ’90s, with the Soviet system and worldview both in freefall. By contrast, Solovyov’s academic essays are carefully organized around “enormous quantities of exhaustive and meticulously formatted footnotes.” Vodolazkin’s original Russian text gently satirizes this academic format by peppering the book with dozens of deceptively correct historical footnotes (readers of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman will recognize the conceit). In Lisa Hayden’s masterful English-language version, as explained in her “Translator’s Note,” the footnotes are transferred seamlessly into the main text. Although less visible, these academic waymarks remain as prompts from invented historians (Vodolazkin is himself an historian by profession). Professor Nikolsky, Solovyov’s advisor, urges him to avoid clichés, commenting enigmatically, “No matter what a person studies, above all he is studying himself.” How true this will prove for Solovyov, we discover as the novel progresses.

Solovyov’s conviction that history can be reconstructed from accumulated details leads him to publicly correct the results of a French academic, Professor Dupont, the world expert on the late general. His correction, although based on weeks of research, is of Swiftian insignificance, relating to troop numbers. Instead of resenting this revision of her figures, Dupont openly embraces the young historian and even symbolically passes him the baton of Larionov studies. Still more heroically, she persuades a Russian oligarch to fund a tiny bursary for Solovyov’s PhD. Much of what follows is a mischievous insider’s view of post-Soviet academic culture, as Solovyov travels (by rail) south to the Crimea, the traditional Russian holiday destination, on a research trip that turns into a picaresque jaunt. He aims to attend a conference and track down missing portions of Larionov memoirs, thus elucidating the central mystery of the general’s life after 1920: why the victorious Soviets didn’t simply shoot him. But as Solovyov chases Larionov’s papers through Yalta and Simferopol, he feels like a character “in a strange film he did not even seem to have agreed to be involved in.”

And indeed, much of Solovyov’s summer does evoke Soviet comedies of the 1960s, complete with exotic setting. Solovyov visits Yalta, where the general spent his final decades as a tenant in a communal apartment, to make contact with the woman to whom the old man dictated his memoirs. Instead, Solovyov meets — and is rapidly seduced by — her daughter Zoya. Here and elsewhere, Vodolazkin struggles to write convincingly about female sexuality. Leeza, Solovyov’s first love, is a study in Portnoy-ish passivity, constantly available and readily forgotten. The Crimean seductress Zoya is equally voracious, submissive, and improbable. Take their first encounter: “He went over to Zoya’s bed and pressed his legs into her. […] A moment later he was lying next to her. […] As if out of nowhere, she took a condom and placed it in Solovyov’s hot hand.” Compare Ustina, the hero’s perfect helpmeet, in Vodolazkin’s second novel, Laurus; or Anastasia in his third, The Aviator, whose romantic interchangeability with her granddaughter Nastya (both are, at different times, engaged to the narrator) is ludicrous. Vodolazkin captures minor female characters brilliantly (like Solovyov and Larionov’s glorious Professor Dupont), but as soon as a woman becomes a love interest, she loses all subjectivity. This is a rare weakness in the author’s otherwise carefully crafted style.

Despite her impeccably respectable job at the Anton Chekhov Museum, Zoya turns out to be a “hurricane” of a woman whose deft carnality soon transforms into a terrifying lack of boundaries or inhibitions. She entices Solovyov into burglarizing (and fornicating inside) the local palace-turned-museum on the pretext of finding Larionov’s memoirs; instead, they are almost caught by police. As the documents Solovyov eventually obtains from Zoya prove fragmentary and inconclusive, he decides to trace the general’s estranged son, Filipp. He discovers that Filipp also lived in Kilometer 715, where he fathered a girl called Leeza Larionova, the teenage girlfriend Solovyov abandoned when he started university. In an Eugene Onegin–like reversal, Solovyov embarks on a desperate (yet still comically methodical) search for Leeza and for the final missing section of her grandfather’s papers. The novel ends on a note of mystery, suspended between past secrets and future possibilities: a scenario Vodolazkin would reframe even more dramatically in the unresolved conclusion of The Aviator, and a fitting finale for the general, who, like his author, is more interested in transition than arrival.

Solovyov and Larionov, which appeared in Russia in 2009, was Vodolazkin’s first novel, but is the latest to be translated. While it foreshadows the historical fatalism and philosophical inquiry of Laurus and The Aviator, it is almost too readable for its own good. Solovyov’s and Larionov’s careers are interwoven so deftly that the novel can be enjoyed as part academic satire, part historical romp. Vodolazkin is a genuinely funny writer (a talent less obvious in the later novels): Solovyov and Larionov contains some hilarious character sketches and set pieces, from academic jousting for precedence to conflicts over property in a communal apartment. When Solovyov tries reproaching a postal worker for a severely delayed parcel by pointing out that, in the 19th century, “Dostoevsky’s letters from Germany took five days,” the official quips right back, “Dostoevsky was a genius.” There is black humor, too: the real-life Red Army commanders Béla Kun and Rosalia Zemlyachka are depicted as squabbling, spiteful children: “Comrade Kun was offended and later drowned all the critically wounded without consulting comrade Zemlyachka.” Even tragedy, in Vodolazkin’s novel, is treated with pragmatic irony. Everyone is on a journey toward death; there is no way of alighting from the train; and if our best days are behind us, we must accept that with grace. As General Larionov was known to reflect, in a most un-general-like idiom, “After all, we’re not going to the fair, we’re coming back from the fair.”

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Muireann Maguire teaches Russian literature and language at the University of Exeter. Her research interests include the history of Russian-to-English literary translation, 19th-century Russian literature, and the representation of pregnancy and childbirth in fiction.