31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 23: “The Man Who Missed Trains” by Diego Marani; Elizabeth Harris, trans.

May 23, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Best European Fiction 2015

Best_European_Fiction_2015The best stories have something ineffable at their heart, some element of mystery or uncertainty that prompts a reader to question or re-evaluate his or her presuppositions and attitudes. Stories ask questions; rarely do they provide simple, prepackaged answers.

Italian novelist Diego Marani’s story “The Man Who Missed Trains” contains elements of what might be considered speculative fiction, but at its core it is a philosophical meditation on time and mortality, and our human relationship to the physical world we inhabit. At bottom, the story questions our notions of eternity.

The central incident in Marani’s narrative – the mysterious disappearance, as if into thin air, of an express train running from Crotone to Ferrara – does not even occur until halfway through the story. The preceding half is effectively set-up, but is nevertheless essential to Marani’s method, which involves careful modulation of the psychic distance between the narrative and the reader.

To this end, the story is narrated in the first-person, but the narrator is not the active agent in the events that transpire. When the story opens, our narrator is employed as a server at the café in the Ferrara train station. In his position he is able to act as the quintessential observer, watching the commuters and other travellers who pass through on their various ways to other destinations. Marani presents the narrator as a romantic who closely associates train travel with the state of being in love:

I suffered in train stations, but I reveled in them, too, in their gratifying confusion. Maybe it’s my fate to always take the train when I’m in love. When I’m lost in the memory of someone’s face or I don’t even know I’m in love yet – it’s just a feeling. This is why I gladly accepted my position in the snack bar overlooking Track One: to see this miraculous, enchanting world close up and fool myself into thinking I could understand it, and so avoid it.

The language here is telling. The world of the train station is “miraculous” and “enchanting,” and the narrator hopes to “fool [himself] into thinking [he] could understand it.” From the very opening passages, Marani creates a mood that is tinged by the uncanny, by notions of magic and the ethereal. Significantly, the narrator considers the station to offer a confusion that is “gratifying”: he is not someone closed to the possibilities of mystery and the intangible.

The story hinges on the appearance of an interloper, Zlatko, a mysterious stranger of Eastern European origin who speaks Italian with an Hispanic accent and is clad from head to toe in a brilliant white suit. Zlatko is the titular character, whose talent (if one can call it that) is missing trains, a notion that may sound comical, but that Marani uses as a springboard for some fairly heady philosophical rumination:

Taking a train is automatic; anyone can do it. Nothing’s required, you just show up on time, buy your ticket, and drink your coffee while you wait for the train to roll in. After you’ve found your seat in a car, every minute’s exactly like the next. The departure’s over before it begins. But missing a train is just one precise moment. Arrive a moment too soon or a moment too late and you’ve missed the point. A moment too soon, you haven’t missed the train at all; a moment too late, the train’s already gone. And you can’t miss a train if it’s already gone. Missing a train also means renouncing everything that could come with that train; it means sidestepping one life and choosing another. Every train’s a journey, and every journey’s a place, and we’re never the same from one moment to the next.

What Marani does with the second half of his story essentially involves taking these abstruse philosophical ideas and actualizing them. When the 754 Crotone express disappears, the citizens of Ferrara literally miss it: it does not show up for another twenty years, by which time the passengers have all aged precipitously. Marani includes genre elements – about different realms of time that move at varying speeds and the possibility of these realms colliding – but his core concerns remain the same.

It is equally significant that the bulk of the story’s action occurs twenty years in the past. Marani paints a picture of an idealized time in which romantic notions of train travel and adventure were still possible; when the 754 express rematerializes in the present, its passengers are wrinkled, dessicated husks, emblematic of an age that has had all the life and vitality sucked out of it. This, in fact, is what Zlatko offered, as much as entertainment for the local drunks and vagrants: possibility.

The final scene of the story has the narrator contemplating the past through the prism of a denuded and degraded present. “[T]hese days, trains don’t have door handles,” the narrator mourns, thinking of the impossibility of brushing one’s fingers against the handle of a train’s door as it pulls out of the station just ahead of one. “They’re convoys of washing machines with blind windows, and they don’t go anywhere at all.” What modernity offers in efficiency and sleekness, it loses in wonder. Twenty years on, the passengers on the 754 express train have turned to dust, and the narrator is left alone, longing to “escape somewhere far away from this time without poetry.”