In the waning years of the Soviet Union, a sad young Finnish woman boards a train in Moscow. Bound for Mongolia, she's trying to put as much space as possible between her and a broken relationship. Wanting to be alone, she chooses an empty compartment--No. 6.--but her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of a fellow passenger: Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, foul-mouthed former soldier. Vadim fills the compartment with his long and colorful stories, recounting in lurid detail his sexual conquests and violent fights.
There is a hint of menace in the air, but initially the woman is not so much scared of or shocked by him as she is repulsed. She stands up to him, throwing a boot at his head. But though Vadim may be crude, he isn't cruel, and he shares with her the sausage and black bread and tea he's brought for the journey, coaxing the girl out of her silent gloom. As their train cuts slowly across thousands of miles of a wintry Russia, where "everything is in motion, snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people and thoughts," a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two inhabitants of compartment No. 6. When they finally arrive in Ulan Bator, a series of starlit and sinister encounters bring Rosa Liksom's incantatory Compartment No. 6 to its powerful conclusion.
In Liksom's impressionistic travelogue of a novel, a young Finnish woman, referred to only as "the girl," and a hard-drinking, middle-aged Russian worker ("the man") are unlikely companions on a long, delirious railroad journey across Russia. The girl, a graduate student of archeology, dreams of going to Mongolia to study ancient petroglyphs, despite the restrictions placed on her as a foreign national, while the man is headed to work on a construction site. Both survivors of difficult childhoods, these travelers are escaping complicated lives in Moscow: the girl has been conducting an unexpected and dangerous affair, while the man is an abusive, frequently repentant husband. As their train traverses Siberia on its way to the Mongolian city of Ulan Bator passing through Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and Ulan Ude, stopping or breaking down often along the way the girl becomes a silent and at first unwilling, but increasingly rapt audience to the man's wild, unreliable tales of Soviet life: full of sex, violence, and as much prejudice as wisdom. The sleeping compartment they share is thus both refuge and battlefield, the girl resisting the man's constant come-ons and provocations. But Liksom's interest is less in the personal quandaries of this sketchily rendered pair than in the Russian landscape "the red dark of night, the dismal, frozen silence," and the character of "that strange country, its subservient, anarchistic, obedient, rebellious... patient, fatalistic, proud... loving, tough people."