Like Sardines by Douglas Jern
The passenger layer now reached the tops of the seat backs, and newcomers had to climb up it to get inside, and climb it they did. Nothing seemed to faze them. Before long even the luggage racks were full of people, who lay there looking bored as the train rolled on toward the next station.
“Like Sardines” is a surreal narrative of chaos and isolation. It takes the rush and grit of public transport and digs into its most unbearable pit. It is absurd, yet deeply familiar, wrangling a mundane experience to illuminate the emotional weight it holds in our daily lives.
While public transport is often a daily routine for many of us, it always brings out intense emotions, whether it be boredom, exasperation, disgust, or relaxation. Jern inspects this emotional routine under a fabulously imagistic microscope, imagining a scene in which a train gradually becomes crammed with passengers. The story masterfully plays with the lifelessness of public transport – the dull herding of passengers onto the train transforms into a sinister, deadly procedure. Chaos consumes the narration, the story becoming overwhelmed with bodies, reminding the audience of the peculiar reality of public transport: the accumulation of strangers, the mass of shared journeys. Jern thus defamiliarises the reader from their daily routine, encouraging a playful yet ominous interpretation of human habit and isolation within the masses.
It is the gradual, careful climb of the narrative into absurdism that grounds the story into a relatable realism. The beginning is populated by nurses, businessmen and students, an utterly familiar scene which consolidates the belief that public transport is not fantasy, nor fun. As the train gets more overloaded, and the announcements over the loudspeaker become more disturbing, the nightmarish reality of the train is like a dark joke shared with the reader. Readers are encouraged to engage with their own experiences with public transport, thinking back to unbearable rush hours and feeling motion sick in the back of a bus. The exaggeration which makes “Like Sardines” so successful is not so hyperbolic that it can simply be denied, but forces the reader to chuckle along, unsettled yet understood.
Often, public transport can be a complicated, time-consuming ordeal. Jern takes this to heart and pays a thrilling homage to those of us who give ourselves up to the timetables of trains, trams, ferries and buses. The fear of “I’ll miss the bus!” and the dread of “this route is so crowded” is indirectly captured by “Like Sardines,” making the story entirely loveable and remarkable.
By Bruna Gomes, Fiction Editor
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Photo by Karen Laårk Boshoff: https://www.pexels.com/photo/sardines-cans-in-light-purple-background-6901810/