First Class

The Underground
Hamid Ismailov (translated from the Russian by Carol Ermakova)
Restless Books: 272 pp.: £11.20

There is a growing consensus that Hamid Ismailov is going to be regarded in the pantheon of one of the greatest literary traditions that there has ever been – The Russians. There are not many languages that have had a  ‘golden age’ and a ‘silver age’, before the complex political issues that arose after the Revolution, and oppressive Stalinism with it. Even though the authorities tried to keep it so, the twentieth century was hardly a quiet one.

Ismailov has good pedigree for the Russian canon. Firstly, he has been exiled and secondly, like his predecessors, he seems to have this enrapturing with the train. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky both relied on the locomotive as a metaphor and prop in some of their most famous scenes. Dostoyevsky though had a particular fascination with it and what it represented in the ensuing modern times; migration, power and trade were all changed or multiplied by the use of locomotion.

The Underground throws a nod to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, but this also isn’t the first time Ismailov has had the train central to his narrative. There was The Railway (1997) and more recently, The Dead Lake (2014), where the narrator travelling on a train meets Yerzhan, a child-looking (deformed through contamination by a nearby atomic testing site) man who like the narrator here, was born at a train station. Again, like Yerzhan we have two characters who are physically, but not psychologically, stumped in growth, with their mind outliving their body. The narrator here is a dead orphan child telling his story from beyond the grave, who, if he was alive, would have been twenty six.

It’s 1986 and Mbobo (Kirill at birth) was born at Oktyrbrskaya station.  Mbobo is later nicknamed Little Pushkin by a stepfather, and those who haven’t got the reference yet must do now because Mbobo is a bastard of African heritage. He’s stuck in a late Soviet society just before its downfall, and this is his posthumous novel. Why serve in Heaven when you can rein in Hell asked Milton, and even though he doesn’t rule down there, the underground pretty much seems to be he limits of his world. It is the outside and above that is hell for him. A flaneur of the underground he is, but he almost is the Underground: “Sometimes the maggots get bored of digging into my decaying body, and they abandon me, burrowing tunnels to the surface to take a breather after it rains. Then within the cavities of my body I feel an emptiness, into which water sometimes gushes like metro trains…”

Throughout, the body is confused with the structure of the underground as Mbobo travels from station to station. ‘Skeletal’ and ‘intestinal’ which in other works might be rather unimaginative adjectives for depicting structure, take on an underlined meaning here. There is also constant imagery of the decaying body, regularly evoked by the image of maggots. Rather than this being a dying world, it is post-death: Sokol station for instance is ‘amid the maggoty darkness’. One can imagine that somebody speaking from the grave is familiar with maggots.

Another man who had this much fascination with death was Charles Baudelaire. This passage from ‘To the Reader’ could have been Mbobo’s address: “Close swarming, like a million worms/A demon nation riots in our brains/ And when we breathe, death flows into our lungs/ A secret stream of dull, lamenting cries”.
The millions of worms feasting on Mbobo’s body and the demon nation that could be Soviet Russia, and like Baudelaire, Ismailov’s vice is modern. Filtering in and out of Mbobo’s consciousness are the things he comprehends and the things he doesn’t. Skillfully, Ismailov in the way that the great moderns did, creates this idea of perceptions and thoughts filtering into the mind, digressing down paths and avenues both wilful and unwillingly. It creates this striking paradox of the train uniformly moving forward and routinely whilst Mbobo’s mind leaps forward, backward and sideways. And when he breaks a mirror, there is that reflection that the consciousness has been looking for, “each half reflecting a snapshot of my brief terror”. Like the broken mirror his thoughts refract and splinter like the distorted reflections of the world that imbue his conscious mind. Whilst the world might be crumbling and his body decaying, the mind is wilfully alive.

To be a great writer you have to be assured that you can be at one with the greatest. Dostoyevsky, as already mentioned, is an obvious influence. More than anything, there is that existentialist despair that Dostoyevsky was one of the first to capture in fiction.  In The Idiot Prince Myshkin, the naive, benign Prince arrives (on a train) into a St. Petersburg society where he cannot comprehend the corruptive influences of it.  Rather than a good man in a bad world, it’s an absurdly good man, just in the world. The idiot is one word for it, but what would another great existentialist say of this passage:
““My stepfather came around the table to me and whispered: “Your Grandpa died…” I didn’t know what to do. What do people do when their Grandpas die? Cry? Howl? Scream? I looked over at Mommy, at a loss, wondering what people do when their fathers die , but Mommy’s face was still stony.”
Stranger? Outsider not registering the shock of death? Mbobo is both the Dostoyevskian idiot and Camus’ outsider trying to make sense in a senseless world. He is not a naive child, but he is still, symbolically at least, a child. Like Yerzhan he is immediately physically and socially un-ready for this world.

Later on, whilst there is an obvious intuition and mention to Nabokov’s Lolita, there is a more subtle nod to the text. To Nabokov, reading was a big game, and although The Underground is much more nihilistic, is the child narrator playing games the way children do? Less spuriously, Nabokov played with the elements of light and dark in Lolita, and there is something similar to that used by Ismailov. Observe how the black and white, light and dark are never compatible and are always in battle. Chess was Humbert Humbert’s muse – game of blacks versus whites.

And of course Nabokov was the immigrant. This story ends in 1992, much the same time as Ismailov’s story in Russia ended before his exile. There are many ways too and not too read into this, but Nabokov’s afterword in Lolita  – “everybody should know I detest symbols and allegories” – due to his “old feud with Freudian voodooism”, shows a man conscious of the spectre of Freud that can hang over the work when we’re trying to infer meaning. It is a difficult theory to dispel; especially when you’re talking about trains and children.

Is Hamid Ismailov a great or on the way to being a great? Well, the greatest do have to tend with being banned for a while it seems. Luckily for Ismailov he will probably live to see the fulfilment of his reputation. It was 1949 by the time the ban on six poems of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs De Mal were lifted. One of his lesser, more restrained works however – ‘The Albatross’ – is unlikely to have received as much attention as the six infamous ones did at the time. Simply, it symbolises the bird with its ridiculous wings “comic and oncomely” being toyed with by the crew of ship after they capture it for fun to relieve their boredom.  Baudelaire reflects how  like an albatross, “the poet resembles the prince of the clouds” and how “his wings , those of a giant, hinder him from walking”. While Ismailov may have read some of Baudelaire’s more charged work in preparation for The Underground, he might have read or might have been inclined to read ‘The Albatross’ for a more personal solace.

Thank you to Restless Books for providing a review copy