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?
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.
61 - 63
train to Moscow - Day 1
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.
the objectors werent 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.
there was any natural solidarity, it wasnt 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...
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.
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 couldnt
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
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.
speed train to Moscow - Day 1
alls 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 couldnt have dreamed of such a place!
ladys right, replied an old union man with
enthusiasm. Youll see, this law will remain
in history as a fantastic social advance just
as important as paid holidays in keeping with
Europes good old Christian and humanist tradition.
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
sorry, protested the former engineer, but
this is no gift pack. Its even the very least
they owed us! Take me, Ive been paying contributions
all my life for my retirement.
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 everyones 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 didnt have the choice.
course, they could, in principle, refuse the benefits
conferred by the Law, but then theyd 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 didnt 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.
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 whod 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.
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.
train glided along at walking speed, so that they could
all see every detail of the show.
poor folks, a voice said, referring to the villas
nearest the track. Living so close to the rail
You get used to it, you know, replied another.
And there cant be so many trains here.
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.
Were still alive to tell the tale.
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.
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.
those hydrangeas! replied his wife eagerly. Congratulations,
Sir, theyre beautiful! she shouted to the
owner, who was completely absorbed in his flowerbeds.
Without even turning around, the man gave a vague wave.
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.
honey, the kidsll love it when they come to see
its so far...
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
doc, its settled? Everyone at the Country Club
for drinks tonight!
be there. replied Jonathan. But first things
first, a good long shower!
right, a shower! came a voice from the crowd.
last, a shower!
the showers! To the showers! The whole compartment
now took up the chant. Jonathan thought with satisfaction,
now theyd follow me to Hell. Eleven days had been
enough to make him their unchallenged leader.
- Day 7
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.
Ill come back later, he said, noticing Jonathans
at all, come in, I wasnt asleep. Well 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 whod
been caught red-handed. Sensing that hed 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.
speaking, what do you think of us? he asked without
Xiao Rong and you?
I mean all of us
on this train
didnt mean that. I mean, speaking as a doctor.
Do you feel ill?
no, it isnt that
Dont you understand,
of course Im not asking your opinion on Tom, Dick
What do you think of the group
a week youve been watching us from morning to
night, you must have an idea: what do you think of us?
Falling apart at the seams
Jonathan repeated the word, not understanding what he
was getting at.
normal, like average! Like any other group of retired
people anywhere, here or any other place
average! From what point of view? In what respect?
medical point of view, of course!
you mean is, are the passengers of this train
do they seem sicker, less stable,
more handicapped than they should be at their age?
did you get that idea into your head?
Bob suddenly dying. He seemed so strong,
full of vitality. And suddenly
maybe the others too
That would explain so many
would it explain, Benoit? asked Jonathan a little
more severely than he had meant to.
making a loss. Its the only way to avoid it. If
we all get sick. Now that hed 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.
remember we worked out that Cliffords profits
depended on four factors: the interest rates, the euro/yuan
exchange rate, inflation in China and the average length
of the residents stay
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.
we concluded, the length of the stay depended on the
longevity of the residents, which could only increase
with the general populations average life expectancy
which condemned Clifford to make a loss, that could
only get bigger with time.
Well, thinking it over now, I found a flaw in our reasoning.
reasoned that life expectancy
for a moment,
as if life expectancy was
an inalterable fact
what I mean is
no reason why it shouldnt be a variable factor.
to the point, I dont see where this rigmarole
is taking us.
took it for granted that no one could have an effect
on life expectancy, modify it.
Am I being clear enough now?
clear, but I still dont see what youre driving
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.
off? How would you do that?
for example, that theyd selected the least healthy
people for Clifford, those who had least chance of lasting
thats why you asked me that question just now!
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.
Theres no other criteria of selection. Far
from looking reassured, Benoits face grew more
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.
what way is that?
use of euthanasia. Jonathan
exactly are you saying? Lets have it loud and
clear! Forced into a corner, Benoit lashed out.
you remember the scandal of the long-stay hospitals
in Paris, around the year 2000? Jonathans
was a long time ago, he said, studying Benoits
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.
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 theyd operated on her
eyes three times in eight months for three totally imaginary
infections, obviously. And a cripple whod 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 dont remember?
yes, it rings a bell. Jonathan granted.
you remember what happened to those creatures when,
milked to the last, they had no more to give?
I dont stuttered Jonathan, livid. I
must confess I didnt follow that business too
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?
he remember! He could still hear the voice thundering,
those eyes staring into his.
talked about creative use of euthanasia.
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
hed 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, Jonathans 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.
too upset to continue, Benoit stopped for breath.
Jonathan offered, without showing his own emotion.
can make you some herbal tea, he said, pointing
to the flask.
for the herbal tea. It might calm me
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, Whats
that business got to do with Clifford Estates?
he asked, pouring the boiling water over the tea-bag.
I have to draw you a picture? sighed Benoit, despairing.
Jonathan had understood all too well. But he pulled
you spoken to anyone else about this?
I wanted to be sure first
Think, Benoit, its important. Really nobody?
said a few words to Xiao Rong.
Benoit asked. Jonathan almost replied, then thought
better of it.
doesnt matter. After all its not that important.
Why put him into torment, now that he was condemned?
250 and 271 - 273
- Day 8
last station before the Gobi desert. Or was it before
then? Nobody knew exactly when the fuwuren had
escaped. They just hadnt shown up at dinner time.
They said it was because of the series of deaths. What
did it matter: tomorrow morning, thered be café
au lait and croissants at Clifford Estates !
before sunset, someone said Hey, there isnt
the slightest blade of grass here. Only then did
they realise they were in the desert.
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.
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 Jonathans 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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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 wasnt
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 werent responsible
for the crisis that made this outcome inevitable, that
it wasnt 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
theyd have to be rehabilitated, made respectable
in their own eyes, made to perceive the usefulness,
the nobility, the beauty of their ministry.
have to explain
instead he simply resigned, certain that theyd
Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 2003