"The Last Few Kilometres"
by Leonid Tsypkin
translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
Originally published in the September 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

For the second week in a row, The New Yorker gives us a very short — and very worthwhile — story. I had never read Leonid Tsypkin, who died in 1982, though I’ve heard great things and have been meaning to read him ever since I got a copy of his Summer in Baden-Baden. This story, though I’m still grappling with it, makes me excited for that.

According toThe New Yorker, “The Last Few Kilometres” was written in 1972, and you can feel the poverty of Moscow under the Soviet system. Throughout this story, our unnamed man is riding a train home from Moscow at twilight. Here is what he sees from his window:

Outside the window, in the murky film of the fading autumn day, Moscow’s former suburbs swam past — clusters of identical white high-rises with laundry hanging on the balconies — which weren’t suburbs anymore, but inside the city now. Closer to the railroad huddled earthbound two-story structures, blackened with soot; plots of land fenced off with solid walls stretched along the rails, their terrain cluttered with car bodies, stacks of logs, or rusted constructions of unknown purposes.

It all feels closed in, and the city is steadily overtaking all horizons. Our man himself “had just finished lovemaking rather indifferently.” As the story progresses we shift from the back and forth from the train to the afternoon when he arrived at his mistress’s place for some food and drink and sex. She has cleaned up the place and is herself “all dressed up.” She busies herself getting their food ready and he realizes that “[h]e had a real mistress and she received him the ways mistresses generally do only in the movies.”

Of course, it’s not entirely fulfilling. Afterwards, really all he wants to do is get home. This story — its descriptions and its tone — is empty and aching.

The underlying ideas in this story may not be particularly new, but that doesn’t matter to me at all. Tsypkin’s style, the pace of the story, it all reverberates nicely.

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