Named “one of the best Russian novels of the 21st Century” (Continent Magazine), The Underground is the unforgettable story of an abandoned mixed-race boy navigating the wondrous and terrifying city of Moscow before the Soviet Union’s collapse.
On Tuesday, we attended the launch for Hamid Ismailov’s newest book, The Underground (Restless Books, out 24 September 2015, 9781632060440, £10.99), at Waterstones Piccadilly. Ismailov was joined in conversation by the book’s translator, Carol Ermakova, and Hugh Barnes, a journalist and specialist on Russian matters.
First off, if you haven’t yet heard of this phenomenal writer, now is the time to do so. Ismailov’s 2014 book, The Dead Lake (Pereine Press), was short-listed for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and he is also the author of The Railway (translated into English by Robert Chandler; Vintage, 2006) and, what he described as his “most impenetrable” book, A Poet and Bin-Laden (translated by Andrew Bromfield; Glagoslav Publications, 2012). Ismailov now works as Head of the Central Asian Service at the BBC.
And so, on Tuesday evening we made our way to that glorious book mecca, Waterstones Piccadilly, where 100 chairs were set out. At first, I felt a tinge of fear that this event I’d been helping to plan wouldn’t have the turnout we had anticipated, but, as the author put it, “despite the adverse weather, Equinox, Yom Kippur and the pre-eve of Eid, the house was full to the extent that 100 chairs were not enough for the guests”. I have never been to such a well-attended literary event. This is obviously down to Ismailov’s devoted fanbase and the numerous journalists and other publishing industry folk who have long been following his work.
The novels’ narrator is Mbobo, a mixed-race boy born to a Siberian woman and an African athlete who came to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. “I am Moscow’s underground son, the result of one too many nights on the town”, as the story begins. The city is seen through this young boy’s eyes, and among the first major experiences he relays to us is his first time visiting a metro station. In fact, The Underground is primarily set across Moscow’s underground system (each chapter title comes from the name of a Moscow metro station), which Barnes described as a symbol of Soviet achievement and one of few positive outcomes of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. Photos were passed around of the stations, each more ornate than the last, featuring marble walls, high ceilings and chandeliers. At the launch, Ismailov discussed how middle class Russians in the Soviet Era knew the underground Moscow better than the city on the surface. He described how he knew the city by the stations, and how his memories are often set in these stations (“I met my wife in that station; I received a gift from my friend at this station”), and that these memories are in many ways deepened by the sense of place and the grand settings.
It would soon become clear that I was a bit out of my depth, having never read any Russian literature before; however, this only inspired me to bring myself up to speed on the Russian masters, Pushkin in particular, in part to better understand The Underground. Peppered throughout with literary games and name checks, the book, in many ways, pays homage to the Great Russian writers, as well as the writers that Ismailov knew himself while living in Moscow from 1984-1992. He says he knew them all! Like the metro system that provides most of the setting of the book, The Underground itself is filled with cultural, literary, human and other connections.
Even more than a literary roadmap, the book is a tribute to the Moscow that Ismailov knew and loved, even if that love was at times bittersweet (being as it was the final years of the Soviet Era). We see Moscow through the eyes of Mbobo, who is eight years old at the beginning of the story. Being a mixed-race child, and therefore often treated in a patronising manner, as if an exotic ‘beast’, Mbobo’s experience offers us an Outsider’s perspective of the city; it also opens the door to numerous disagreements about just what is and what isn’t ‘Russian’. With that in mind, however, I think a great deal of dignity is given to him as well: Mbobo is nicknamed ‘Pushkin’, after the ‘founder of modern Russian literature’ Alexander Pushkin (who in fact was the great-grandson of an African man).
When it came time for questions from the crowd, which Barnes admirably fielded by running up and down the aisles with his microphone, one attendee wanted to know if The Underground is another in a long line of critiques against Soviet Communism. Ismailov insists it isn’t – that his vision was to tell the story of one person’s life, and that this life happened to be set against the final years of the USSR. He originally penned a 60-page story of Moscow inspired by his young daughter (who would have been the same age as our narrator), and that is what eventually morphed into the story we see published here today. Ismailov concluded this thought with a line that I found very beautiful, and a perfect way to sum up the evening: “A person’s life is far wider than ideologies”. And with the author surrounded by swarms of people eager to congratulate his achievement and obtain his signature on their newly-bought copies of the book, I rushed home to continue reading it, as I am only halfway through and must find out just what will happen next in the life of young Mbobo/Pushkin.
– Sarah Wray / @sarahdubbleyew
The Underground is published today, 24 September 2015, by Restless Books. It’s available from all good bookshops and online retailers. Find out more on our website: turnaround-uk.com/the-underground.html.
What do you think? Have you read The Underground yet? What themes were most prevalent to you? Were you at the launch on Tuesday night? We want to hear your comments – find us on Twitter @turnarounduk.