“A terrifying red train was speeding along the rails. That train, which passes by here daily, seemed so sinister to me now. For it was rushing toward me . . .”
The life paths of two strangers, both of whom have decided to commit suicide by train, cross on the iron rails. They are looking for a way out of life's dilemmas and see no reason why they should continue living. Their lives are approaching the final station; they are waiting for the death train. These rails in Canada take the reader back to the past when the protagonists haven’t been born yet. The beautiful and stubborn Serbian woman, Adriana, comes to Mostar to write an article about the rights of Serbs being violated in the Balkan Peninsula. Her prejudiced views change when she gets to know Mostar and her good-natured and intelligent guide. Despite herself, Adriana, who was raised with hatred for the Bosnians, falls in love with a man from this “hostile” nation. Her fascinating life story reflects the struggle on the way to one’s deeper self, which unfolds against the background of love, selflessness, betrayal, and the horror of the Srebrenica massacre. Who will win in this struggle? This novel shows how deeply a human being can sink, what evil floats up when one gets into trouble, and also the spiritual peaks to which a human can ascend. On the one side, a terrible war, whose main victims are women and children. On the other, love, coming out victorious in the hardest trials. It might be easy to die for the sake of loved ones; to live for them, dying and being reborn every day for years—that is the toughest task of love.
Readers interested in exploring religion, notable authors, and the history of the Balkans will find a wealth of information. That knowledge comes at the expense of the dialogue: Ted and Farouk’s discussions feel more like a collection of essays. The philosophy is earnest, but its analysis of free will and predestination is familiar (“No one can ever escape his fate.... We can only act as the universe’s coding instructs us—just like in a computer program”). Scenes showing the men’s individual lives and the lives of their families do more to humanize them, and moments of genuine emotion help to make clichés (the dead mother and the wicked stepmother, the character in a novel who is himself a writer) feel, at times, plausibly real.
The exploration of family dynamics is filled with sincere emotion, specifically during and after the war in Bosnia, from which Farouk’s parents, Serbian journalist Adriana and Bosnian tour guide Amin, flee to Canada. The story of Adriana and her family is truly heartbreaking. Abdullaoglu finds clever and satisfying ways to tie the beginning and the ending together. Readers who persevere through the novel’s more dense sections will find much to appreciate in the historical narrative.
Takeaway: This eclectic mix of philosophical investigation and historical fiction will draw in readers interested in the generational consequences of trauma.
Great for fans of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: C
THE MAN ON THE RAILS bears similarities to Joshua Oppenheimer’s heartbreaking documentaries, The Act of Killing and The Look Of Silence, which examine the aftermath of war atrocities in Indonesia. In both Bosnia and Indonesia, war criminals roam free today or currently hold positions of power, while victims and their families suffer in silence. War continues to tear nations and families apart, long after the guns have gone silent.
THE MAN ON THE RAILS is a powerful work. Rovshan Abdullaoglu writes with passion and grace with an impressive sense of detail and atmosphere in a modern novel crackling with ancient wisdom.
Azerbaijani writer Abdullaoglu explicitly confronts some of the worst moments of the Balkan war and does a commendable job of portraying the complexities and nuances of that fraught place at its darkest hour. The storytelling is convincing, and its philosophical aspect has a timely and vital message. A lot happens in this novel, and though the incidents all come full circle, the narrative is weighted much more heavily to Farouk’s story. Some scenes are a bit preachy, but the theme of love overpowering adversity remains authentic. An absorbing and contemplative tale about the ravages of war and the need for love.
Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers' Favorite
Author Rovshan Abdullaoglu has crafted a wide perspective on humanity which homes in at the perfect moment to bring us detail and emotional impact as the story progresses. I knew very little about the Bosnian war and the conﬂicts of the diﬀerent parties involved, so the novel delivered a lot of historical, cultural, and social perspectives from that time which all readers can beneﬁt from understanding. I was most impressed by the character development, which creates the strong protagonists who underpin every action of the novel, and of course, Adriana stands out as a proud ﬁgure who undergoes quite the learning experience. The dialogue was a strong point too, driving important philosophical questions and digging deep into the emotive content of the tale, but remaining realistic and not clichéd. Overall, I would highly recommend The Man on the Rails to readers who appreciate thoughtful literary ﬁction with a wide-ranging perspective. ★★★★★
A cross-generational tale of suffering and perseverance, The Man on the Rails is an unforgettable musing on the value of life and the prices we must often pay to survive. In a narrative exploration of cultural biases and belief structures, as well as the complex confusion of romance in times of tragedy, this story is anything but a straight line or an easy escape. As is found in Abdullaoglu’s other work, there is an engaging juxtaposition of modern knowledge, ancient cultural traditions, and intense philosophical effort. While this cerebral undercurrent can occasionally make the story feel cold – a vehicle for larger ideas – the unique characters and unusual plot turns are effective catalysts for self-reflection and reassessment of all we think we know.