Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!
In Hamid Ismailov’s new novel, a mixed-up Russian reviews his life from the safety of the deep.by Robert Murray Davis 21 February 2014
The Hungarian critic Ferenc Takacs described Gyorgy Konrad’s The Case Worker as the kind of novel that any Central European intellectual should be able to write in six weeks. This was a characteristic exaggeration, but allowing for wider geographic range, one knows the kind of novel he was talking about: Camus’ The Stranger, Imre Kertesz’s Kaddish for a Child Not Born, and this novel, whose title perhaps alludes to Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground. The narrators are both isolated and alienated; the setting is constricted, almost claustrophobic; narrative does not depend heavily on plot; the central figures tend to be acutely sensitive to their contexts, social and historical.
Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbek exile writer and BBC journalist writing in Russian, and here translated into English, creates a narrator, “Moscow’s underground son,” who is African on his Olympic-athlete father’s side, Siberian on his mother’s, and sometimes defiantly all Russian despite being identified as a Negro and at one point called “the very incarnation of Russian literature.” He has two substitute fathers and mentors – a drunken writer subsidized by the state until he isn’t, and an Interior Ministry police officer who becomes a real estate mogul with a Rolex – and the narrator and, until her death his drunken mother, shuttle between them. He has three names: Kirill because he is Russian, Mbobo because he is black, Pushkin because the poet was part African. The letter M – for Moscow, his mother’s name, for Mommy, for Mara or demon, and for Metro – is an emblem to which he is repeatedly drawn. Very early on, the reader learns that he narrates the story from his grave, which is about as isolated as one can get.
He hints at one point that the time of narration is 2006 or 2008, but the 13 sections are dated from 1980, his conception during the Moscow Olympics, to 1992. Rather than developing a consistent line of action, the external structure of the novel is established by these sections, each in turn divided into short chapters given the name of a Moscow metro station and the line it serves. The subsections are sometimes connected by conventional transitions; elsewhere, the narrator admits that he is digressing. The shortest segment, a series of dashes, deals with the death of his mother in a fashion even more laconically enigmatic than the famous chapter in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: “My mother is a fish.” The lack of continuity and coherence seems justified because the narrator has no fixed home and no point of connection except his mother – and that not consistently.
His personal life also disintegrates. Unable to say the magic word to release his mother from the legendary stone mountain, deserted by his classmate Zulya, with whom he hoped to make a life in the underground railway, and shocked into (apparent) violence by the sight of Lita (an ironic analogue for Dante’s Beatrice) in the arms of an elderly lecher, he goes into a fugue state in which he may have killed the pair as Humbert does his nemesis Quilty in Lolita. He retreats to the metro and to the “bridge between my present, otherworldly reality of death and the former unreality of what I called life” and seems to hear a voice that may be either his mother or “Lita-Moscow” telling him, “It is time!” In the final section, sharing Pushkin’s sense of betrayal, he seems to see and hear Zulya as he falls beneath the train wheels – although the novel’s final sentence, with its terminal ellipsis, “And yet …” – may offer less definitive closure.
Internally, the structure is varied and subtle. Key motifs are interwoven: the stone mountain that swallows the narrator’s mother and can possibly be commanded to open with the right word; the letter M; references to the Tibetan book of the dead; the Khakassian folk tale involving the brother-gods of heaven, earth, and underworld (the last one black), in which the people are saved by a black boy’s self-sacrifice. Most obvious and at the same time most enigmatic are the descriptions of the various metro stations, all different, all subtly borrowing elements from the others, and the metro lines themselves, compared at times to ant-hills, to the veins of the narrator’s body, and most broadly to “the subconscious of Soviet building, its collective unconscious, its archetype. What was left unrealized – or never fully realized – on the surface was achieved underground.” The passage ends with the narrator’s vision of his skull incorporated into the design of the Sokol station.
Two major questions in the novel are: Who is Russian? What is Russian literature? The distinction between Russian and non-Russian wavers according to social, psychological, and political currents. Paradoxically, Pushkin is Russian literature’s “guiding light … because he was normal, like a non-Russian. You can’t be Russian and not have a few screws loose.” The only recourse, for the narrator and perhaps for Russia, “is literature, a heroic attempt to balance an unbalanced life, an unbalanced soul.” And for that matter a way of keeping his voice alive from the grave.
Few souls are as unbalanced as that of the narrator. However, he seems, at least to Uncle Gleb, to be destined to become a writer. For much of the novel, he amasses tales, poems, and songs, once taking over and changing the direction and tone of Gleb’s story about a woman reincarnated as a female cat into a minor tragedy of an illness that kills a tomcat. He canonizes his own work in a dream about a conversation with Vladimir Nabokov in which he finds his own works published in the same lavish format as Nabokov’s Selected Works, after which Nabokov presides at a feast for the narrator and his mother. The dream of grandeur is more than justified by the artfulness of The Underground, which interweaves elements from his experience to create the motifs of blackness, subterranean movement, and isolation that create the novel’s strongest effects.