Rote Behaviour: Oleg Pavlov’s Trilogy

Captain of the Steppe (with introduction by Marcel Theroux)
translated by Ian Appleby
£12.00 rrp.: 231pp.

The Matiushin Case
translated by Andrew Bromfield
£10.00 rrp.: 249pp.

 Reqiuem for a Soldier
translated by Anna Gunin
£10.00 rrp.: 185pp.

by Oleg Pavlov
published by And Other Stories

Chekhov wrote subtly but powerfully, as he often did, about the’need’, a desire to move from one state or another through the acquisition of something external and satiation of something internal. This feeling may hark back to times past, creating more illusions now, but a reality once, and might guide us to something that will not necessarily aid us. It is as Maria and Olga reflect in the story ‘Peasants’ “the terrible incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere”. So is the need hiding from us, or we hiding from the real need? This is the question that has shaped modern humanity, and never have our needs and desires and how we acquire them been so permissibly accessed, and only now, perhaps, are those needs so questionable. It’s ironic now then that we go to a writer who shares his surname with a man who pioneered psychology – Oleg Pavlov.

But my needs are tied up to impose a narrative, contextualise. I return to Vladimir Sharov’s quip that “Russian history is, in fact, a commentary on the bible.” After reading Oleg Pavlov’s loose trilogy; Captain of the Steppe, The Matiushin Case and Requiem for a Soldier, the question of who shall lead these men and give them what they need throws Sharov’s sound-bite into a not-so non-divine light.

Pavlov is well garlanded in Russia winning the Russian Booker Prize and the Solzhenitsyn Prize. Marcel Theroux writes in the introduction to Captain of the Steppe, quoting Kurt Vonnegut,that the principle of good storytelling is that every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Vonnegut is right, and there are few good novels that focus on characters who are purely indifferent, but that need only has to be a simple one for the reader to be engaged in the character’s endeavour to get it. In Pavlov’s work, that need is nearly as simple as a glass of water. “A decent and conscientious officer” says Theroux of Captain Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov, on the verge of retirement and for Theroux a“more pragmatic man would see out his final days at the camp and leave. Not so Khabarov.”

Writing is an avoidance of cliché, but maybe because it is trying to describe a cliché. In this case: an army marches on its stomach.

“Khabarov began making assumptions about a lot of things in advance. We’ll live the way we always have, he said repeatedly, in a tired voice when the regimental supply truck turned up, complaining only that once again, they’d been a bit stingy over how many potatoes they’d sent.”

The potatoes they are sent are mostly rotten and unfit for consumption, outdated much like the year-late newspapers they receive. Khabarov realises though that “The events that were transforming everything in the world did not make it as far as the steppe – they got lost on the way.” And so Khabarov then realises what others need and sets off on the course to satisfy that by growing a vegetable patch. And this is how it often starts in Pavlov’s work; that simple need to satisfy a need, plunges into farce, bureaucracy and the potential for tragedy.

It is told in such an unemphatic manner, a characteristic Pavlov maybe shares with Chekhov (and that passage from ‘Peasants’ is probably one of Chekhov’s more emphatic moments), when it is a simple and unemphatic thing to do, yet its effects are far reaching and such is its escalation. It is good-willed but not saintly, and for its sake, it is disruptive but hardly revolutionary. It might be as simple as a glass of water and as essential as one.

When asking for simple things though, it usually means that there are complicated reasons that it hasn’t been accessed in the first place. In Khabarov’s case this is food, or potatoes, but this greater notion of ‘fuel’ is perhaps where Pavlov’s greater comments are being suggested.  It is easy to apply it to a commentary on the Soviet Union, and certainly it does appear to be part of it, but some of the joy is in this ambiguity of its wider significance. A humble potato is yes, a solid, starchy food, a great source of sustenance, they’re a key ingredient in the production of vodka, but as a form of ‘fuel’ ,it has that greater impotence within the idea of what ‘fuels’ a country and people. Russian oligarch’s make their money in oil and fuel, but fuel burns and wastes away, yet is essential to continuation. Here the characters are already “wasting away” as Pavlov tells us on the first page, so where are they to get the fuel?

Here is Khabarov tending to the potatoes:

“When the sun blazed, he was happy, thinking that the potatoes were absorbing its warmth. And when the rains poured, he was happy, thinking that their potatoes were drinking their fill. However the captain did not know when to dig up the potatoes, as if this had to happen on a single day, like death or birth.”

The potatoes are reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s blackberries, that as soon as he has picked the fresh ones, they begin rotting, but “Each year I hoped they would keep, knew they would not” (from ‘Blackberry Picking’ in Death of a Naturalist). Even in knowledge of their early demise, he continues to pick them. If that is knowledge then what is that makes him pick them? Is it the same thing that makes Khabarov plant those potatoes? If it is the knowledge of death, is it the same belief that also makes us ignore it or make us believe in things like religion? Or rather is it the search for something grander, an eternal fuel that doesn’t expire? These are of course hardly answerable questions, at least succinctly, and it is up to the reader what they ask and what they think is answered, but there is something in Pavlov’s novels which keep the characters going even when they know death is likely awaiting them. And at the same time, it’s like the characters are looking for a guide or leader, not noticing that it has been bestowed on themselves, or  not noticing that the act they’re undertaking is such an indebted one. Pavlov’s narrative voice, his omniscience, then feels burdensome and intrusive like the ultimate bearer of that knowledge. Even when they’re not sure what keeps them going, he is the one that punishingly is.


In The Matiushin Case we’re made aware of something fueling and being present early in the character’s life. This time, it’s a much more localised affair, and the element of farce is removed, the caricature stripped to something rooted and inflicting. Here it focuses on two brothers, one of which dies, and the other is set to live out his legacy. You might call it a condemnation to live his brother’s legacy, and Matiushin is a very Dostoevskian character but without the internal, erratic madness.
Early on (and early on is very important here: or is it?) it’s clear to Matiushin that his more valiant brother was their parent’s pride. But baring in mind what’s been identified in Pavlov’s ‘authorial presence’, we’re given this in the first few pages:

“Matiushin had eaten up since he was a child – choking as he did it, but eating up. There was a fear in it, but a thrilling fear, contaminated with love, exactly like his jealousy of his older brother’s closeness with their father – and the love, not the dread, made them subject to their father’s will. This love could not be eradicated from their hearts. Just as their father failed to grasp that he was driving his children away and taking revenge on this alien life through his antipathy for them, so his children failed to grasp that the stronger it became – this antipathy of their father’s, their sacred, bloody revenge that he was wreaking on life through sacrificing them – the more selfless and insuperable the impulse of their love for him would become, as if it were the very impulse to live, and they couldn’t manage without each other.”

There is a lot going on here, but I think it’s necessary to quote at length. Considering how soon this is, it feels like it’s presented by Pavlov as a sort of admission, so that again, that question of what is needed and how it is attained is not so simple. We’re not sure whether it’s the consciously desired path or a more complicated inevitability, and also that sense of somebody knowing more than the character, the all-seeing and expectant viewer is very present. When Matiushin goes into the army then to fulfill, a prophecy, a journey, it’s easy to see the allusions to Dostoevsky, but with that, come those questions of faith and Christianity. Back out in the steppe, the narrator follows Matiushin with a cloistering closeness as if that strict observance from the father never left him. Is this the punishment before the crime? Perhaps it poses the question of religiosity being explored more intensely than Dostoevsky because the crime hasn’t happened yet, or at least Matiushin’s crime.

It’s an intense experience. Pavlov is comfortable with repetition, barrenness, depressiveness, and the fact is that we’re out on the steppe, in the largest country in the world, in a place of sheer expanse. This is central to what Pavlov is trying to manipulate. They say you never feel lonelier when you’re stood in a crowd of people, and perhaps you never feel more confined when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.

“Life was shit because it was a long march to the vodka tower, there wasn’t enough space to live in…While you were content with just one square foot of land in the world, you stood on just that one square foot. But the moment you looked up at the sky, you scraped your dirty face against its vastness.”

The irony in the metaphor of that final sentence emphasises the desperation in the act, to ‘feel’ the physicality of its distance. It’s not a discovery to find that there are forces working against what we think we need, the knowledge as Heaney suggested, is already there. To return then to that idea of fuel that was prominent in Captain of the Steppe, it is burning and expiring as soon as we engage in it. Take for instance the moment when Matiushin wants a drink – “ He absolutely musn’t, although he couldn’t understand what point there was in forbidding himself a drink,” –  and it does sound like a religious abstinence or an abstinence imposed by something as powerful as religion. But here is Pavlov’s power. And this is perhaps a scarier question, because we must wonder then what it is that stops us or doesn’t stop us, like Matiushin, like ourselves, in doing the things that we do? We can even use Ivan Chistyakov’s diaries as a similar example (and also why Pavlov has gained comparisons with Solzhenitsyn, not forgetting that he was also a prison guard) of where the question of choice and need doesn’t just become one of physicality. And the ingenuity of it is that, Pavlov leaves this choice open to the reader. The space that he eventually creates opens for these questions is a scary and vast one and one that we might rather foreclose again.

That image which may appear certain, or closed, yet is paradoxically a vast one is something that sustains Pavlov’s writing. His themes, motifs and images rarely change (a steppe; the military; a simple completion of a task).That great, big open space, yet the dogma and the regimental living within it, and this was the same  Requiem for a Soldier. It has those similar themes to that which we’ve seen in the previous two novels, but the farcical nature from Captain of the Steppe is re-injected here to deliver what was the best work of the three. This is combined with translation from Anna Gunin which I think captures Pavlov’s syntax and language the best out of the three.

Set within the final days of the Soviet Empire, Alyosha, having just completed his army service has been promised a gift of an ‘eternal steel tooth’ by his commander (who, perhaps in a throwback to The Matiushin Case, is also deaf). Alyosha has a tooth removed to make way for it, but it never seems to arrive. In the mean time Institutov, who runs the medical infirmary and removes Aloysha’s tooth, conscripts Alyosha into completing tasks around the chaotically organised surgery. But as the tasks accumulate, one of them involves collecting the corpse of soldier from a lab and having it transported to Moscow, leading into an absurd, picaresque journey.

Again, it is incredibly bleak but it’s accompanied with equally as bleak and black humour. The ambulance for instance, that Institutov and Alyosha carry the dead soldier’s body in, isn’t saving lives – it’s already carrying the dead. The grand metaphor that immediately stands out is this idea of the corpse of history, the dead Soviet state (and that idea of avoiding a cliché to talk about it again, when the hole in the head of the soldier is revealed: “an ordinary first-aid plaster. Institutov peeled off the white backing tape and with an unfeigned look of anguish, he stuck it over the dark hole in he corpse’s forehead”). And what is to be done with that body, when it refuses to disappear and refuses to lay to rest? Freud said that unexpressed emotions never die, are only buried alive and come forth in uglier ways, and so with Pavlov writing this in 2002, but it only being translated into English in 2015, it follows a convenient parallel with modern history. Putin, Trump: there is evidence of uglier ways coming forth.

It’s a question that has concerned the history of humanity, how we come to terms with history or events and what we do with the corpse of the past. Antigone had to defy the law to give what her brother the rightful burial that she thought he deserved, and in the accordance of a different kind of law to the one imposed on her. “Leave me to my own absurdity, leave me to suffer this dreadful thing” Antigone cries, so one wonders then who’s absurdity Alyosha has inherited? Further, one wonders what absurdity we have have already inherited it in what we’re faced with now in form of a new global order? Maybe liberalism really didn’t allow us to confront anything, only contradict ourselves, make us conscious cynics of our age.

But there are two burials that Antigone and Creon battle over. She wishes to see it observed by divine, familial law and Creon thinks that it deserves to be left to rot with the parasites and the carrion. So again, we’re confronted with that question of conversion and space. What becomes of the fuel? On one of Alyosha’s earlier tasks he is charged with retrieving the bread and the water (yes, that simple thing). He takes a sledge with him and trudges in the deep winter to the village.

“Harnessing himself to the sledge, Alyosha cursed at his heavy load, perhaps the way a horse might gently curse a laden cart. If only the horse could know that the cargo was hay, and the hay was to feed his very own self, then wrath would give way to joy. As for Alyosha, he could not rein in his fiery human resentment. It was as if his whole scheme had been specially dreamt up: we’ll make him drag his burden for a good fifteen miles, only to dispose of the whole heavy load into his stomach, turning the lot into nothing.
It was here on this winter road to nowhere, loaded with something destined to turn into nothing, that Alyosha discovered life’s simple command.”

Alyosha couldn’t convert enough snow into water by melting it and that simple combination of elements was not enough to satisfy a more widespread need. In Pavlov’s narrative world it is that fear of something destined to turn into nothing, and the vacancy of it’s departure. Pavlov shows that that ‘space’ isn’t necessarily empty, it’s negated, and it is the space that confronts us all and when it is departed there are more difficult things to be comprehended. Pavlov will not give you any answers though. If Russian history is a commentary on the bible, in Pavlov’s world the passage and the ending is not so comforting, and the knowledge that we choose to either ignore or use, might not even help us anyway.

The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Adolescent
Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Dora O’Brien)
Alma Classics: £8.99 rrp.: 654pp.

The adolescent holds a precarious position in western culture, perhaps because of the precariousness of its subjects. It’s a time when a person’s values from political, to relational, to sexual are never so intensely questioned by a person. Teen movies and sitcoms have probably done the demographic a disservice, and the idea of rebellion doesn’t necessarily have to be a loud and an anarchic affair but there is some truth in it – at some point in one’s life, you must try and understand the world in your own terms. The time for realising that you can’t understand everything comes later.  The Bildungsroman is affectively the novel of adolescence and becoming. But every novel is arguably a process of realisation, a multitude of anxieties in figuring out what works and makes sense for the times that it is being written in whilst also figuring how it relates to the past and future. It is no surprise then how much cultural interest there is in the adolescent or the person ‘coming of age’.

Dostoevsky’s characters were not all adolescents, but a lot of them seemed to be in a similar position to one; discovering this new consciousness and in a situation of trying to understand how that conscious really influenced their world and in turn influenced them. Ironically, The Adolescent is not held as in high regard as his other works, and has not just been neglected but maligned by some critics, so is a new translation justified? Dostoevsky is eternally interesting even when he’s ‘bad’. You could argue that The Adolescent resembles an adolescent; unruly, rejecting form, concealing information, and trying to understand and comprehend ideas beyond comprehension. And like an adolescent trying to find a moniker, a sign of individuality, the novel has had many names and titles; ‘The Raw Youth’, ‘An Accidental Family’ and ‘Discord’, but Alma have chosen to settle on The Adolescent, which I think was the wisest choice.

In the 19th century bildungsroman there was an important trait: the protagonist of one was usually fatherless or parentless. Dickens of course provided many examples of this, but the young man or woman (as it unfortunately was most often a male), needs to educate oneself and has to find their own way of life away from the home. Arkady then is the illegitmate son of Versilov who married beneath his class in his serf Mother. He is fatherless in the biological sense and his ‘real’ father is absent. Ironically Arkady shares his surname with the founder of Moscow, Prince Dolguruky and is repeatedly mistaken as an heir of. He is in name but not in person: this is something that novel continually questions the philosophical implications of.

But to consider the times in which we’re in, here is Arkady at an auction:

“There were those who got excited and those who remained silent and waited, and there were those who bought and then regretted it. I didn’t have any sympathy for a certain gentleman who hadn’t listened carefully ad had by mistake bought a milk jug made of German silver instead of sterling silver, paying five roubles instead of two for it.”

This illuminates the tension that is central to the novel and the jugs represent this idea of similarities being completely different. So what is the difference? Like the jugs, Arkady is stumped in battling and raging against Versilov, a man who isn’t really his father, only something that resembles and represents him. The novel was published in 1875; around that time Marx was reconfiguring the way people understood what money was, or for that matter wasn’t, and this question of what the essence of a thing is, was transcending culture western culture. Dominant Kantian thought for a long time had posited that essence was elusive and unobtainable, but for Hegel who was influential on the thought of Marx, there was a difference between something’s Being and its Essence, or what lies behind the thing that looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like. For Hegel, “the truth of being is essence.” In Logic Hegel went on to write: “In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished. Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other.” (Author’s emphasis)

I’m not saying that The Adolescent is imbued in Hegelian philosophy (it might be, but I don’t know enough about Hegel, or philosophy for that matter), but I think that the passage above provides some of the backdrop, and the important way in which Dostoevsky is using the Bildungsroman form: there is no real other for Arkady, only a man representing himself as the other. It is the opposite of when Stephen Dedalus would try and leave both the family and the strict Catholic environment he had grown up in (Arkady recounts in the first few pages what it is like at school that both invokes Madame Bovary and the school days of Stephen Dedalus), but Arkady is instead returning to his surroundings that would otherwise prevent or obscure the journey of self-education.

The Adolescent is arguably paradoxical then in its approach to the form. If anything, it’s the opposite of self-discovery or education, or is at least mostly an unconscious process, because Arkady already has, what he calls his “idea” of living. Part of the problem for Arkady is to get over this “idea”, but as the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that this idea is not as enlightening or constant as it seems:

“The most frenzied dreams escorted me right up till the discovery of the “idea”, when all the those foolish fantasies turned sensible and went from the dreamy realm of fiction to a rational form of reality.”

The idea is elusive as the portrait he is painting of himself, but although the novel may be a form of self-discovery for Arkady, it is up to us to see through him whilst also being enveloped in his viewpoint. This after all is Dostoevsky writing this novel and Arkady like most of Dostoevsky’s characters has been thrust into a world where he is making choices and decisions that he does not necessarily understand the implications of, even when he thinks he does. And so the adolescent is the perfect medium for Dostoevsky, because who else represents the world better than an age group that is stereotypically thought to know more than it already does?

Image result for dazed and confused

Characters from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993)

What’s remarkable about the The Adolescent is how a lot of it appears to be caught in a direct tension conscious and unconscious. Arkady knows that he has to discover something but he does not know what he will become as a result. Something is truly compelling Arkady to write this; you lose count of the times Arkady refers to feelings and urges that can’t be ‘controlled’ or are not comprehensible. The opening words for instance are “Unable to hold back…”. What then is the reason for him not being able to do so any more, even though he knows to write an autobiography “a man must be all too miserably enamoured with his own self to write about himself without shame”?

Is it Arkady’s idea? As you read on, you’ll see it become an occlusion, but also does represent part of Arkady’s journey at hand, knowing that it must be broken down or parsed to see the deeper meaning of. Look for instance around the constant references to ‘seemliness’. It is a novel about seemliness after all; people seem like his father but are not; people seem to be princes but are not; ideas seem to represent things but they don’t; instead, it is a constant case of abstraction, resembling and mirroring reality. And in a way, it is a novel that seems to be a novel yet takes from fictional memoir or at times drama, never fully whole and rounded, like the adolescent who sometimes seems to be an adult and sometimes seems to be the youth.

As a result, nobody knows. Things only ‘seem’, or as Hegel stated, “there is only the diversity and reference to an other”. Arkady doesn’t even know what his “idea” is that he persistently reminds us of. He is aware of these new different codes of reference like dreams, and knows that what he is not entirely aware of is a powerful thing:

“Let the reader remember my dream! If there was such a dream, if it could burst out of my heart and express itself that way, it means that I not so much knew as had a premonition of an awful lot of what I’ve just explained, though I only actually truly discovered it “after it was all over”. There was no knowledge as such, but my heart was throbbing with premonitions and evil spirits had taken over my dreams.” (Author’s emphasis)

The passage shows how many different levels and directions of thought Arkady is trying to comprehend. There’s the references to the dream and its symbolic powers which would of course be taken upon by Freud, but the narrator describes it as been taking over with ‘evil spirits’ which would signify a much more religious inclination. Yet it is his heart that throbs like a romantic, and then he seems to also rail against ‘true’ knowledge. It’s ironic because it appears that the Arkady is fully aware that he is writing for the audience, yet we as the reader not entirely sure who that the audience is us.

We’re frequently reminded of Hamlet in The Adolescent (as we are in most bildungsroman’s: think of Stephen Dedalus and his ‘Hamlet hat’);  the sense of a father being replaced by somebody who isn’t the father, but having to live, not only domestically, but politically under him as well (Versilov and Arkady regularly exchange political ideas, but it’s that sense of abstraction in who Versilov represents, or for that matter, doesn’t represent and in the sense an element of King Lear; the constant sense occlusion and particularly the recurring motif of a letter). Arkady and Hamlet both wanted to conscientise themselves to become that person who was in their father’s place and Hamlet showed the tragedies that can occur in trying to do so. But Arkady is constantly aware of his excess unlike Hamlet was. He is aware of the excess of knowledge that is to be had about the self, but not sure what the knowledge is (he is “unable to hold back” remember). There are frequent references to ‘blushing’ and ‘crying’, these excessive displays of emotion that signify more for the observer than for the person in question. Perhaps that is all that matters, the act that represents it. In Robert Brownings ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842: a dramatic monologue which The Adolescent verges on at times) the Duke in question constantly refers to the blush of his Duchesss even when he doesn’t appear to be describing her as ‘blushing’ (“She had/ A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad”): obviously what we perceive the blushing to be, may different to the Duke’s perception, but arguably the Duke is effectively blushing to the reader – revealing more than he intended to.

The TLS suggested that the reason for the novel’s failure was that it had similarities or elements to most, if not all, of Dostoevsky’s novels. Unfortunately this is a lesson learn in adolescence; nothing is original. But there are lessons to be taken from that; the new edition of this novel comes at a time when the world we’re in appears to be clinging onto old ideas of how the world should work from economics to ecology. In the same way that we ignore the lessons of youth, we ignore Dostoevsky at our peril.

Thanks to Alma for providing a review copy

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