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


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Orient, Christopher Bollen – A Review.

As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle classes. There seems to be a return to a post-war kind of realism. We know who they are, but we don’t know what they mean in this post-recessional, post-postmodern age.

Mill is adopted by Paul Benchley, a long-time bachelor and resident of Orient. You wonder if anybody can be technically fostered at the age of nineteen, which the Orient community greets with a whispering frenzy on the day of Pam Muldoon’s garden party. The Muldoons are established Orientites, and In our close-knit villages we all know these locals who seem to hold a powerful nexus in their communities.

Not long after Mills’ arrival, deaths happen. It’s a foreboding atmosphere for Mills and the reader, and he is immediately one of the suspects. Who’s America is this? There are certainly elements of realism, where early modern Fitzgerald meets hypermodern Franzen. If, at the end of Franzen’s prologue to Freedom (2010), as the neighbours watch the dissolution of the afflicted Berglunds, “they just don’t know how to live yet,” Orient’s answer would be a much more cynical one than Freedom eventually offers. Like Freedom it is a long book, and although Orient has been eschewed by some as a thriller, there are a steady succession of ‘gripping’ events, but it would be unfair to linchpin it as a thriller. Instead Bollen builds up the drama at a sustained rate, increasing the suspicion and intensity. Mills is already in too deep in a world that is not made for him; the family world, the constant of Orient that is family, and as Mills is drawn into it, it’s apparent that he is bringing the unsettling storm with him from the city. There is a threat underlying the gleaming facade of American family life, and they’re desperately trying to eradicate it before they get eradicated. Away from the thrilling aspect, this is the real subject of Orient – ­ family.

Bollen uses Paul Virilio’s quote “The invention of a ship is also the invention of the shipwreck” as an epigraph. I’ve not read many books where the epigraph seems to frame the book so aptly, and the ensuing chaos that follows as Orient begins to fall apart. Orientation is ironically central to Orient; maps, geography and the conflict within it. Where does the conflict come from? Typically, everything points toward the nineteen year old orphan, and all his differences to the rigid straitlaced Orientites. At first, and echoing those films of the late nineties, there are homoerotic undercurrents, as Mills makes an advance on the Muldoon’s son Tommy. In the way that American Beauty did, it becomes something like the fantasy of the other that these rigid structures do not allow, the object of blame, and Mills is that. He is not just the hatred and the phobia, he is also the desire and the wonder of the other. “Tommy had taken him for some kind of street hustler, with his earring and his city background, and his trip out here under the charitable wing of an upstanding neighbour like Paul Benchley.” But then there is the disappointment, that these people we so firmly believe are different, are the reasons for our downfalls, are more similar than different, regardless of skin colour, background, affluence. It’s as if hate is the stock response. Mills is the provocateur without being provocative, a catalyst against everything that Orient is trying to preserve – “He felt suffocated by the mother in front of him and embarrassed by Paul’s display of protection,” as he himself is uncomfortable in this stable environment, one of the few times Bollen lets us inside Mills’ head.

Western liberalism seems to have a tag-line: how could this ever happen to us,and that’s what the murders on Orient do. As Bollen continues to dismantle Orient and many western myths as they search for the reason why (artists, terrorists, gays are all part of the blame), it is not the enemy within, but the enemy we create ourselves to cover up own fallacies. No matter what the derivation of the word ‘homicide’ is, it certainly sounds like it features the word ‘home’. As our western nations continue their wars of imperalisation, this seeps down into the psyche as the problem abroad covers up the one at home. As Tommy observes, America must be a superpower if, even when it loses its wars, it still remains a superpower.

Bollen asks Virilio-esque questions from his characters, “When do the defense measures of a paranoid country become their own agents of self-destruction?” The answer to that question would be that it seems to be happening. Beth, a one-time artist, and some-time mother strikes up a kinship with Mills as they investigate the murders, is married to a Romanian-emigre artist. By looking online, she diagnoses herself with Neurasthenia:
“At the bottom of the entry, a donning footnote: Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname Americanitis.” We self-diagnose ourselves with our own problems – we are creating the diseases we are trying to battle, like poverty and terorism. Beth is pregnant at the start of the novel, and is still pregnant at the end of it. Bollen seems slightly cynical of motherhood, but it is as if Beth is trying to delay the gestation and the arrival of a child into this world.

For all our beliefs in technology, how it is enhancing the world, for all our myths of connectedness that it brings, globalisation is the creator and the antithesis of it all, despite what its name implies. Beth is overriden by her motherly and creative instincts to Mills, how she wants to connect in a natural way but can’t,

One was to mother him, to buy him lunch or simply press her palms to his forehead. The other was to paint him…It had been so long since she had felt this way – inspired. She sped east on Main Road, racing toward the tip, afraid at any minute that she’d lose the sensation, this happiness for the company of a stranger who reminded her why she’d once enjoyed painting strangers in the first place. To love them, to – that horrible technological term now ruined for all time – connect (Bollen’s italics).

Only connect, which was of course central to Forster’s (1910) novel about the contrasting lives of social classes, it is ratcheted up from Howards End  and the homage to it by Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2008). There is the sense of the new and the old in Orient, the conflicts of the city and its outskirts, art and the technological, and ironically in Bollen’s style, the conflict of the literary and the genre. His multi-layered narratives are as if to try and make these characters ‘live in fragments no longer’.

If the invention of the ship also means the invention of the shipwreck it also means the invention of a lot of similes and metaphors for Bollen to use. His prose really is enviable at times with a skill both for the polemical and the poetical: take this from the prologue “Each window was flooded with the reflection of water,” – superb. Yes, Orient is surrounded by water, and although geography is more important to Orient to any other book i’ve read this year, you can sometimes feel yourself drowning in the constant imagery of water and the elements that seem to occur on every other page. With this diverse cast of characters and subplots, you do sometimes feel that it is what is holding it together. But only rarely does the structure keep, and Bollen, to his own skill keeps it going.

This is a remarkable achievement though; an immensely satisfying experience by an immensely skilful writer. As there are elements of genre fiction, Bollen typically uses certain tropes of it, and maybe Bollen should be wary of not becoming a Joyce Carol Oates mash-up of the literary and the genre fictions, because he is an artist with potential for great successes. Many will not begrudge him though if he does.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, said Nick Carraway, the eponymous narrator of The Great Gatsby (1925). How the residents of Orient need that old fashioned, parental advice now.

Orient (609 pp.) by Christopher Bollen is released in April 2015 (£16.99 rrp.). Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy