Eternity Express
Summary and
Excerpts of the Novel


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Following the collapse of pension funds and the economic impossibility of the West to pay out pensions, 25 million 'papy-boomers' are sent to live in a Chinese eldorado: Clifford Estates, a residential estate with a lower cost of living. In the Transiberian train crossing Asia, doubt settles in. Who will pay for this unlikely paradise when the bank accounts are in the red?
The strength of this book lies in its topicality. Truong describes a world so close to our own that the future he depicts could be ours tomorrow. Jonathan, a doctor, boards the train with a group of dynamic pensioners who, like him, are victims of the pension crisis. Amongst these once 'nouveaux-riches', however, Jonathan hides a dark past: accused of having sustained his patients' illnesses thus draining them of their savings, he has served a long prison sentence. A general optimism is maintained by the detailed description of the luxury accommodation in the Clifford Estates brochure. However, when the ex-business men among the passengers begin to carefully calculate the Clifford Estates costs, they discover that under no circumstances is the estate a viable enterprise. The journey rapidly deteriorates. One of the more insightful passengers realises that the only factor that allows the Clifford Estates to lower its costs is the longevity of the train passengers. This character is found dead. In an atmosphere worthy of 'The Crime of the Orient Express', the prime suspect becomes a Chinese woman who disappeared during the boarder crossing. The unexpected train stops in the middle of the desert exhaust the passengers and the long awaited arrival at the Clifford Estates seems more like the reaching of the promised land. Champagne flows and the newly arrived passengers are offered a shower to refresh themselves. They are gassed and burnt. We learn that the death train has preceded the extermination of a generation of which society could no longer bare the burden. This text, punctuated with flashbacks and discussions, reveals a terrifying ideological reality. Truong details the ideological links separating contemporary experience from that of his fiction. Through his unanswerable logic he shows us how we have come to believe that 'for the majority to survive, some must die'. The heroes of this nightmare are the pensioners of today.


Pages 61 - 63

High-speed train to Moscow - Day 1

A judicious compromise… That was the official argument, drummed out again and again during the campaign prior to the vote of the Retired Citizens Relocation Law. With the same retirement pension, the cost of living was six times lower in China. By sending retired people there, it was possible to offer them decent living conditions till the end of their days at a lesser cost for society. Those primarily concerned had tried to protest, putting all their influence into the debate to avoid what the most virulent objectors clearly classified as deportation.

But the objectors weren’t footing the bill, and the one hundred and sixty million people who had to pay for the retired were quite determined not to let themselves be bled dry by a generation to whom they owed nothing.

If there was any natural solidarity, it wasn’t to be found in the grey suburbs of the European cities, but somewhere between the green valleys of Sichuan and the muddy planes of the Yellow River. By overwhelmingly approving the Retired Citizens Relocation Law, in the depths of an economic slump, the up and coming saved the day for the ageing baby boomers while preserving their own chances of survival...

The law transferred full management of all retirement pension funds throughout the European Union to six private operators, the Concessionary Companies. The capital - proportional to the number of retired people they took in charge, a lump sum per capita, non-revisable during the concession - was fixed after an invitation to tender. In exchange, the companies assumed the obligation to receive in their establishments, for the rest of their lives, all the citizens who had reached the legal retirement age.

The selected firms undertook to respect specifications drawn up in agreement with the unions, stating in detail the required standards of comfort in the residences, food, leisure activities, medical care and even funeral service. But nothing was said about where the contract was to be executed. No one was dupe: such a small sum couldn’t cover such generous services, at least not within the economic situation prevailing in the European Union. The retired citizens would have to accept exile to more affordable lands. Very soon, journalists and commentators had baptised this project the ‘Retired Citizens Relocation Law’.

Thus, in exchange for a cash lump sum financed by a State loan, the EU government handed over all of its obligations toward the now ageing baby-boomers to the private sector, thus profitably passing on the economic risk linked to their growing life expectation and increases in the cost of their health-care. The concessionary companies, for their part — international consortiums comprising the most powerful banks and insurers, giants in the hotel business and the big pharmaceutical trusts — claimed they could make the business profitable with their financial expertise and savoir-faire in management. They alone, so they said, would be able to exploit the combined advantages of productivity, scale, and relocation.


Pages 66 — 68

High speed train to Moscow - Day 1

‘When all’s said and done, what are we complaining about?’ declared a former decorator, waving the sumptuous brochure of the Clifford Estates. ‘Even before Black Tuesday, Most of us couldn’t have dreamed of such a place!’

‘The lady’s right,’ replied an old union man with enthusiasm. ‘You’ll see, this law will remain in history as a fantastic social advance — just as important as paid holidays — in keeping with Europe’s good old Christian and humanist tradition.’

‘To my mind,’ continued an ex-teacher, ‘this is the ultimate proof of the superiority of the European model of development, which has always sought to reconcile economic dynamism and social solidarity. Look at America, where the old people work till seventy, eighty, then silently die in their basements …’

‘I’m sorry,’ protested the former engineer, ‘but this is no gift pack. It’s even the very least they owed us! Take me, I’ve been paying contributions all my life for my retirement.’

‘Anyway, we have no choice,’ said Bob, who was becoming exasperated with the conversation. Jonathan noticed that the ex-financier, like the others, had said ‘us’: by levelling out everyone’s expectations, Black Tuesday had created the most unlikely solidarity, in spite of their differences. His cynical reminder of reality put an end to the discussion. Manual workers or store owners, self-employed or executives, civil servants or entrepreneurs; if they were sitting here, it was because they didn’t have the choice.

Of course, they could, in principle, refuse the benefits conferred by the Law, but then they’d have to get by alone with an amount negotiated between the Union and the concessionary companies, paid out in a single lump sum when their rights were due: a final settlement. It didn’t take long to work out the equation: with rent, food, clothes, leisure activities, and especially health care - more and more costly as they grew older - it was impossible to make ends meet. So their choice was limited to picking their jailer.

After the concessionary companies had been selected, they had all been the target of elaborate marketing campaigns, with TV slots, door-to-door reps with glossy brochures, out to persuade them to take a one-way ticket to China. If you totalled those who were still doubtful; those who - despite all the evidence - hoped that growth would pick up; those who wanted to decide after consuming their last crust of bread; and those who’d rather starve or die of cold in a squat than go into exile; it was esteemed that around a hundred million elderly people in Europe would, one day, resign themselves to joining the exodus. In the almost desert north-east of China, two thousand ‘retirement villages’, just like Clifford Estates, were springing up to receive them. The greatest concerted movement of population in the history of humanity could begin.


Pages 109 — 111

Clifford Estates, 1h31pm. 

‘This is too much,’ Jonathan thought to himself. The words CLIFFORD ESTATES, cut out in big white letters on the side of a hill, gave their arrival an absurdly Hollywood-like feel. In front of him stretched out a huge, furrowed plane, as far as the eye could see, hundreds of identical villas — with white molten glass façades and ceramic tile-effect roofs, the terraces, windows of tinted glass, small gardens in front of the door, perfectly trimmed privet hedges — dolls’ houses in obedient rows along avenues as wide as the Champs-Élysées, lined with trees that, even in this climate, would probably take years to provide shade. Just behind, little three-story buildings proved that even in this paradise, there would still be the underprivileged. Farther away, cranes indicated that this young town was still growing.

The train glided along at walking speed, so that they could all see every detail of the show.

‘Those poor folks,’ a voice said, referring to the villas nearest the track. ‘Living so close to the rail traffic…’

‘You get used to it, you know,’ replied another. ‘And there can’t be so many trains here.’

‘Not like us, honey?’ said a third to his companion. ‘We lived thirty years right next to the station Les Vallées, on the Saint-Lazare — Nanterre line. Every two minutes a train sped by our garden. We’re still alive to tell the tale.’

‘Doesn’t seem to be doing them any harm, anyway.’ It was true, the people living beside the railway were all busily occupied, paying them no attention. From time to time someone looked up at them, then probably disappointed by the lack of interest in what he saw, turned back to his occupation.

‘Did you see those roses! Honey, did you see those roses?’ enthused a passenger as they rode by a little garden rich enough in floral decoration to rival with Bagatelle, at least in this hemisphere.

‘And those hydrangeas!’ replied his wife eagerly. ‘Congratulations, Sir, they’re beautiful!’ she shouted to the owner, who was completely absorbed in his flowerbeds. Without even turning around, the man gave a vague wave.

‘Not too friendly, the locals,’ remarked Jonathan. A little farther on, a young couple were busy around a barbecue, while the children wrestled on the lawn under the affectionate gaze of their grandparents.

‘See, honey, the kids’ll love it when they come to see us.’

‘Pity it’s so far...’

While everyone was congratulating each other, the train arrived in the station. From the end of the platform, bribes of ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ could be heard, played a little too quickly by a local jazz-band. Then from the loud speakers came the appropriate words, so long awaited that thunderous applause greeted them: ‘Clifford Estates. Clifford Estates. Terminus. All passengers please leave the train. Please make sure you leave nothing behind in the compartments …’

‘Ok, doc, it’s settled? Everyone at the Country Club for drinks tonight!’

‘I’ll be there.’ replied Jonathan. ‘But first things first, a good long shower!’

‘Dead right, a shower!’ came a voice from the crowd.

‘At last, a shower!’

‘To the showers! To the showers!’ The whole compartment now took up the chant. Jonathan thought with satisfaction, now they’d follow me to Hell. Eleven days had been enough to make him their unchallenged leader.


Pages 221 — 228

Trans-Siberian - Day 7

Forking off south toward Ulan Bator, the train definitively lost its right to the prestigious name of trans-Siberian. Jonathan was enjoying a few moments of solitude on his berth when someone knocked on the door. It was Benoit, his computer tucked under his arm.

‘Sorry, I’ll come back later,’ he said, noticing Jonathan’s ruffled hair.

‘Not at all, come in, I wasn’t asleep. We’ll be at the border in an hour, I should have been awake by now anyway. Is anything wrong?’ Benoit stared at the tips of his running shoes like a kid who’d been caught red-handed. Sensing that he’d better not upset him, Jonathan decided to wait. Before asking this kind of person questions, he had got into the habit of counting silently to thirty. They usually broke the silence before that. Benoit lasted till twenty-nine.

‘Frankly speaking, what do you think of us?’ he asked without looking up.

‘You? You mean … Xiao Rong and you?’

‘No! I mean all of us… on this train…’

‘Well… I think they’re … nice people…’

‘I didn’t mean that. I mean, speaking as a doctor.’

‘Why? Do you feel ill?’

‘No, no, it isn’t that… Don’t you understand, of course I’m not asking your opinion on Tom, Dick or Harry…  What do you think of the group… For a week you’ve been watching us from morning to night, you must have an idea: what do you think of us? Falling apart at the seams … or normal…?’

‘Normal?’ Jonathan repeated the word, not understanding what he was getting at.

‘Yes, normal, like average! Like any other group of retired people anywhere, here or any other place…’

‘Average… average! From what point of view? In what respect?’

‘The medical point of view, of course!’

‘What you mean is, are the passengers of this train…’

‘Yes, that’s it… do they seem sicker, less stable, more handicapped than they should be at their age?’

‘How did you get that idea into your head?’

‘I dunno… Bob suddenly dying. He seemed so strong, so… full of vitality. And suddenly… I thought… maybe the others too… That would explain so many things…’

‘What would it explain, Benoit?’ asked Jonathan a little more severely than he had meant to.

‘Clifford making a loss. It’s the only way to avoid it. If we all get sick.’ Now that he’d spat it out, Benoit explained the whole thing without stopping. A good mathematician, bloody-minded into the bargain, he had taken up the problem where Bob had left off. By dint of determined examination, he had found a solution.

‘You remember we worked out that Clifford’s profits depended on four factors: the interest rates, the euro/yuan exchange rate, inflation in China and the average length of the residents’ stay …’

‘In fact, it depends on the last factor alone.’ Jonathan corrected him. ‘If I remember correctly, even Bob recognised that the first three risks could be covered by some kind of insurance.’

‘And we concluded, the length of the stay depended on the longevity of the residents, which could only increase with the general population’s average life expectancy …’

‘… which condemned Clifford to make a loss, that could only get bigger with time.’

‘Exactly. Well, thinking it over now, I found a flaw in our reasoning.’

‘Which is?’

‘We reasoned that life expectancy …’ Benoit hesitated for a moment, ‘… as if life expectancy was an inalterable fact… whereas… well, it could be… what I mean is… there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be a variable factor.’

‘Come to the point, I don’t see where this rigmarole is taking us.’

‘We took it for granted that no one could have an effect on life expectancy, modify it.’

‘You mean… deliberately?’

‘Yes! Am I being clear enough now?’

‘It’s clear, but I still don’t see what you’re driving at.’

‘It’s not so complex, if you find a way to level off, deliberately, the residents’ life expectancy, you eliminate the risk of Clifford making a loss.’

‘Level off? How would you do that?’

‘Imagine, for example, that they’d selected the least healthy people for Clifford, those who had least chance of lasting…’

‘So that’s why you asked me that question just now!’


So that was it. Jonathan burst out laughing. ‘Let me put your mind at ease, our travelling companions are no more and no less hale and hearty that other people their age. And anyway, according to the relocalisation Law, any citizen of the Union of the required age has the right to a place in a retirement village like Clifford. There’s no other criteria of selection.’ Far from looking reassured, Benoit’s face grew more perplex.

‘That’s what I was afraid of. Do you realise what this means?’ Jonathan stared at him, really worried now. ‘That means,’ continued Benoit, ‘that they only have one way to level off life expectancy.’

‘And what way is that?’

‘A…let’s say creative… use of euthanasia.’ Jonathan grew pale.

‘What exactly are you saying? Let’s have it loud and clear!’ Forced into a corner, Benoit lashed out.

‘Do you remember the scandal of the long-stay hospitals in Paris, around the year 2000?’ Jonathan’s heart leapt.

‘That was a long time ago,’ he said, studying Benoit’s face intensely, looking for the slightest flare of a nostril, or flickering of an eyelid, that might tell him something. Could he have recognised him? Was he playing now, like a cat with a mouse? Or was this pure coincidence? Benoit continued stubbornly.

‘They exploited the patients like endless sources of medical fees, giving them all kinds of useless treatments, sending the bill to Social Security. Each patient brought them in thousands of euros in business, x-rays, scans, biological analyses, surgery, therapy etc. The investigators even found a ninety-year-old they’d operated on her eyes three times in eight months for three totally imaginary infections, obviously. And a cripple who’d been sent to the podiatrist nineteen times the same year, for corns, callosities and bunions, all just as imaginary! The judge figured that these establishments managed to milk thirty thousand euros per patient just counting the commissions they received from doctors, which almost doubled the allowance they received for the residents’ stay. You don’t remember?’

‘Yes, yes, it rings a bell.’ Jonathan granted.

‘Do you remember what happened to those creatures when, milked to the last, they had no more to give?’

‘Nnn…o, I don’t’ stuttered Jonathan, livid. ‘I must confess I didn’t follow that business too closely.’

‘Me neither, but still… At the time, the revelation terrified the public. By some strange quirk of fate, the wretches died within three months. Negligence, treatment was inappropriate, or it came too late when they had a fall, syncope or embolism, malnutrition, dehydration, central heating out of order in winter, air conditioning broke down during a heat wave... No criminal acts strictly speaking. Just a series of innocent little incidents that helped along mother nature. To make room for new milking cows in the stable. You remember the expression the State Prosecution used?’

Did he remember! He could still hear the voice thundering, those eyes staring into his. 

‘He talked about creative use of euthanasia.’

While he spoke, Jonathan tried to contain the panic that was rising within. Only the events that affect us personally leave their inalterable mark. But, according to what he’d said, Benoit had followed the affair from afar. And his memory was like a well-worn coin. The facts had left a print, time had certainly washed away the details. Moreover, Jonathan’s present appearance bore no resemblance with what he had looked like at the time of the scandal. Finally, nothing in the way Benoit spoke about this episode revealed any animosity toward him. Benoit had no idea who he was dealing with, that much was certain.

Visibly too upset to continue, Benoit stopped for breath.

‘Vodka?’ Jonathan offered, without showing his own emotion.

‘Something milder?’

‘I can make you some herbal tea,’ he said, pointing to the flask.

‘Ok for the herbal tea. It might calm me…’

‘I’ll just go and get what we need…’ He got up, went into the next compartment and a came back a moment later with a clean cup. ‘But tell me, What’s that business got to do with Clifford Estates?’ he asked, pouring the boiling water over the tea-bag.

‘Do I have to draw you a picture?’ sighed Benoit, despairing. Jonathan had understood all too well. But he pulled himself together.

‘Have you spoken to anyone else about this?’

‘No. I wanted to be sure first…’

‘Nobody? Think, Benoit, it’s important. Really nobody?’ 

‘I said a few words to Xiao Rong.’

‘Poor Soul…!’

‘Why?’, Benoit asked. Jonathan almost replied, then thought better of it.

‘It doesn’t matter. After all it’s not that important.’ Why put him into torment, now that he was condemned?


Pages 250 and 271 - 273

Trans-Mongolian - Day 8

Choiren, last station before the Gobi desert. Or was it before then? Nobody knew exactly when the fuwuren had escaped. They just hadn’t shown up at dinner time. They said it was because of the series of deaths. What did it matter: tomorrow morning, there’d be café au lait and croissants at Clifford Estates !

Just before sunset, someone said ‘Hey, there isn’t the slightest blade of grass here.’ Only then did they realise they were in the desert.


Then, in the middle of the night, when everyone had given up hope, a slight bump shook the train. The ventilation started up again. The lights came on. A moment later, they were moving.

Life depends on such little things, thought Jonathan, amazed. A short time ago, they were agonising. And now the increasing speed of the train was breathing new life into them. When the day broke, they had reached their normal speed, and everyone was thinking about living. When the first train passed by - a Global Waste train, that stood out from all the others because of its green colour and unique smell - they rubbed in Jonathan’s camphor paste under their noses with something approaching joy: now, they could be sure, they were on the main track. The main track, with its telegraph poles, stations, customs checks and disgusting Global Waste convoys. The main track; you knew for sure where it came from and where it went. The main track, where you were never alone. The main track, that they never should have left.

Now the convoys passed by more and more frequently, like a regular heartbeat that proved life was beginning again, the most elementary and decisive proof; proof by circulation, proof by the pulse. What did heat and thirst matter from now on? They were back in the life flow.

Then a cry went up, like the one those shipwrecked souls on the raft of the Medusa must have uttered when they saw the redeeming coast:


They were in raptures. The golf greens, the lake with sailing boats, the woods and the elegant riders, the racetrack, the polo ground, lawns that would have made Roland Garros pale with envy, the stadium, the Olympic pool looked even more Olympic with so few swimmers in it, the flower beds that Le Nôtre would have been proud to own, the beautiful villas of home…

And in each one of them, the pacifying certainty: yes, surely, the brochure had kept its promises, even more so than they had dared to hope in their wildest dreams… And finally those giant letters on the hill, their torment, their hope, their reward: CLIFFORD ESTATES.


Pages 285 — 286

Clifford Estates, 14h20

In the hall, everyone looked down, the grooms in their grotesque operetta uniforms, hostesses in pink fluorescent kimonos. They were all petrified, as though they realised at last what was happening. Then a threatening, whispering sound rose in their ranks. Some eyes, filled with hatred, turned on Jonathan. The crowd began to move in his direction. The situation was getting dangerously out of hand.

‘Outside! All of you! Quick!’ boomed his commanding voice. Galvanized, the capos stood to attention and started yapping in their turn. A squad of heavily armed men in green marched quickly into the hall and stood in front of Jonathan. Subjugated by the brutality of this show of authority, grooms and hostesses walked obediently toward the doors. As they marched toward him, Jonathan saw the loathing in their eyes transform into disdain.

But who were they to judge him, these serfs? For a moment, he was tempted to tell them. Legitimacy, necessity and even humanity, yes, the authentic humanity of it all. But that would mean explaining. The economy that wasn’t taking off… The impossibility of financing the necessary boost as well as retirement pensions… The obligation to choose between the future and the past, despairing youth and the ageing baby boomers who were bleeding them dry… He would have to take away their guilt, convince them that they weren’t responsible for the crisis that made this outcome inevitable, that it wasn’t their fault if the century had produced more old people than it could feed. And now they were here, they had to be looked after. Better they do it than the dogs, the vermin and the rats… Moreover, they’d have to be rehabilitated, made respectable in their own eyes, made to perceive the usefulness, the nobility, the beauty of their ministry.

He’d have to explain…explain.

But instead he simply resigned, certain that they’d never understand.


© Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 2003