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


Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

UPDATE (14/11/2013)

WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE

Original Review below.

The coming of age novel is not an under cooked format. Airport bookshelves are dotted with the neo-plotted , hollow ,saccharine, single mother who cannot handle all this childcare and shopping stories, or the new 50 shades era that arguably degrade the whole for that one author’s commercial gain. I find it hilarious when people refer to E.L James as a pariah; writing dross about submissive women, selling out to film producers at the drop of a hat. From the first word though, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by debut novelist Eimear McBride is a renegade against commercial fiction and an attempt to tell the truth about what it means to come of age,
“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear you say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, i’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day”
Immediately it conjures James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’s opening lines, of the father teaching his son about the ‘moo-cow’ and the ‘baby tuckoo’, but unlike Joyce’s classic text, where Stephen Dedalus gradually mature’s from those juvenile perceptions, McBride’s protagonist (nameless, and so are all the other characters) stays with this immediate conception of her life. Within a dozen pages or so you become accustomed to this and fully in immersed In the novel.
The allusions to Joyce come naturally, but it becomes apparent that there is another dimension to McBride’s work. Like Stephen Dedalus, the narrator’s life is cast from early infancy to her early 20’s. Her brother’s illness boils away in the background whilst the protagonist must tackle with the identity crisis of her emerging years. Where Joyce chose to prescribe Dedalus his by dipping in and out of his conscioussness, Macbride fully immerses the reader into the chaotic, reactionary mind of this female.

Dedalus’ mission was to break free from the religious dogma to become the artist, A Girl is a… is striving for something with a much greater pretext and fluid – her identity. Religion is a constant presence throughout her life. The ‘Holy Family’ as she refers to it in her early days,
“Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. with their babies and babies lining up like stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up.”
Gradually though, the religion that she is forced to live under, accept and live by enters her processing consciousness and leaks out into her frantic thoughts. When she starts coming into her sexuality in her early teens, it poses the kind of questions a life under religion does, and in doing so McBride mocks and goads Catholicism; its oppressive, old fashioned views on sexuality. In fact it is quite scathing (welcomingly) and see’s it as another force of oppression for her narrator and the female in the search for identity. MacBride introduces the girl’s Uncle who throughout the novel, constantly manipulates and exploits his niece for sex. It is brave, bold, and unflinchingly graphic at times, but important. The narrator is then continually at odds with this religious thought and her own natural development
“Two stairs. Three at a time if I can. Leave it. Sitting room. Watching there the telly all of them. I’ll be on my own. Be quiet insides. Don’t be fucked up. I will wait. This out. He’ll [Uncle] be gone. Quite soon. I’ll be pure to then. I will. It’ll be. It’ll be. Fine”
And then, she will resort to Jesus and Mary in times of despair, like most people resort to, believers or not. Religion is the one that blames the narrator for the way she is, her urges, temptations which should be,completely natural. In a vicious, circular way, in her times of desperation, religion becomes the empty, non-fulfilling savior. McBride allows religion to skew the picture like it does in life.

Interestingly this leads to the questioning of the man in McBride’s novel. They are a very strange breed in a A Girl…As mentioned, there is the Uncle, and the other formidable male presence of the brother battling a brain tumour, which she sometimes resorts to blaming herself for. But while she watches him dying, she also watches him literally waist his life away. He doesn’t display the urgent need to fill a bucket list before he goes, but just watches his days go by. Then there is the absent father, who emerges died when she was young. It is never spoken of in straight terms, and never digressed, but allows for the religious element to be explored further.
“Don’t turn your face from the father or he’ll turn his face from you” and “no sign of the feckless father” are a couple of the ambiguous statements uttered In the household. The absence of the father and man in her life ties in with MacBride’s further scathing of religion. The male image of God is the predominant male figure in the narrator’s life, but he is constantly leaving her stranded, never answering her desperate prayers. Like any poor father, he is not there to be that paragon male figure that everybody, as a natural birth right deserves. And then as the overbearing witness to his daughters development “Don’t let the father see you doing that”, religion is no replacement for the compassion that a father would bring.

To return to Joyce and the stream of conscioussness, it is not that straight forward and easy to categorise. Her narrator’s scope isn’t as all encompassing as somebody like Stephen Dedalus’ with less allusions and digressions, but it is a different subject matter with different achievements as already mentioned. If anything, it is the narrator’s need to break free from religious thinking to just live her life in non-apparent sin and blame. It is also distinctly chronological in a linear coming of age way. The prose if anything more closely mirrors, Samuel Beckett’s How It Is. cBride manages to keep the style from getting tiresome, and it is a lot easier to get along with than somebody like Joyce’s, certainly Beckett’s, even Woolfe’s but they’re different eras for different audiences. Instead we are restricted to the narrator’s battling conscious and unconscious. Eros and Thanatos are duelling, and there is a persistent tussle between the drive to destruction and the drive to procreate. Most often they are confused. To pluck a line from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle ‘the course taken by mental events is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle…[associated] with an avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure’ best embodies what is going on in the narrator’s mind.  It has an almost Baudelaireian view on sex and is difficult to view it as beautiful or destructive.

There is a constant allusion, and return to sea imagery, which is more reminiscent of Woolfe as if a metaphor for her equilibrium and state of mind, “Strange. Pushed out to the ocean of school. Wave back occasionally to her shore”. This is an easy metaphor to explore when the narrator is trying conceptualise her life, but it sustains and provides some poetic images, and is particularly powerful towards the end of the novel. In fact the last part of the novel is one of the strongest I have read this year. It also provides respite from the immediate cluttered perceptions of the narrator, and is not only escape for her but for the reader as well.

It will be very interesting to see where McBride goes next. Here is a writer with a clear message and an apparent anger, and a sanctity of hope that publishers still want to publish new and daring works that do not may not have a commercial credentials. We should be thankful to Galley Beggar Press, as McBride has said in a recent interview that the bigger presses didn’t seem viable. A new voice, backed by Galley Beggar, not only that it is one with a cause, but one against the tides.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride is out now (240pp), published by Galley Beggar Press (£11). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.