Not a lot has changed

Rex Dunn reviews: Hamid Ismailov The underground Restless Books, 2015, pp279, £10.99

The story itself is not so important: it is the ideas and the images it evokes which make it worth reading. It is told in the first person:

I am Moscow’s underground son ... my mother ‘Moscow’ was born in a little Siberian town ... She picked me up from an African sportsman ... in the Olympic village. I became a cross between a bulldog and a rhinoceros ... my mother died when I was eight and I died four years later ... The rest is just decaying, late-blown memories ... the metro became my best friend, where I always fled from the terrors and delusions of life on the surface kingdom.

The underground is a long lament - an allegory - for a lost dream. It straddles the last few years of the Soviet Union and its chaotic aftermath; from socialised property and a system which was neither socialist nor capitalist - under the rule of a brutal, dehumanising, centralised bureaucracy, wherein the law of value was is in a state of suspension - to the system’s inevitable fall and the restoration of capitalism, spearheaded by the bureaucracy and its agents of repression.

‘Mbobo’ was conceived during the Moscow Olympics of 1980. He is the victim of racial abuse - once described as the colour of overcooked bacon rind. A bright boy, who develops an early interest in Russian literature, he desires to be treated as another Pushkin by his peers and fellow citizens - Pushkin also had black blood in his veins - instead of being regarded as that “little black devil”.

Mbobo’s “perpetually drunk” mother, the beautiful Khakassian, Mara - or ‘Moscow’ - is at the head of the queue, when it comes to abuse. After Mbobo accidentally burns himself, she punishes him, not just with a beating: “she crumbled dry corn on the floor, then made me kneel on it with my bare knees”. ‘Moscow’ has two lovers, who play the role of stepfather in turn. On the one side, there is uncle (‘Daddy’) Gleb, an alcoholic who, when he is sober, writes for the journal Friendship of Nations (!). On the other, there is uncle Nazar, a burly Moscow policeman, who is a stickler for the rules (according to his own dictatorial judgment) - and god help those who break them. Especially poor little Mbobo, who can expect another beating, because uncle Nazar also likes a drink or two.

The three adults could be seen as archetypes for the proverbial dark Russian muzhik soul, reinforced over the years by the effects of atomisation under an inhuman system. Ground down by that system, they lurch from spontaneous acts of cruelty and sadism, initiated by drunkenness, to acts of extraordinary kindness and generosity, when they are sober: Uncle Gleb tells Mbobo the sad tale of a little cat, with which he identifies (the dream becomes reality and vice versa, as is so often the case), who dies in agony from kidney stones, despite the efforts of Mbobo and ‘Daddy’ to save him. Later, after one too many vodkas, ‘Daddy’ attacks mummy with a knife!

The novel is structured by time - before and after the fall of the Soviet Union/the death of Mbobo’s mother - as well as short chapters, each named after the stations of the Moscow underground (much of which was built during the five-year plans in the 1930s). The Moscow metro stations are probably the most beautiful in the world. They reinforce the idea that Mbobo prefers to spend much of his life underground, since life above is so harsh. In this sense the metro juxtaposes between the two realms: it is a bridge - like the river Styx - between life and death. The metro stations (especially at major junctions) are beautiful in their own way; a strange mixture of styles: socialist realism/neo-Gothic/Baroque/neo-classical/art nouveau. (Stalinism got the idea of interplay between styles, even pastiche, long before the postmodernists!)

From time to time, the author has Mbobo describe their strange beauty. At Ploshchad Revolyutsii station - famous for its statues of male and female revolutionary fighters - Mbobo meets his second stepfather, burly uncle Nazar. He lives in the once fashionable (soon to be again) Arbat, where he can see the Kremlin from his window. Surrounded by mosaic panels of peasants, Mbobo and his mother emerge from Belorusskaya station en route to the cemetery on a cold winter’s day to bury his grandfather, colonel Rzhensky. The pallbearers slip on the frozen earth and “his body knocked against the sides of the coffin, nearly falling out”. At Paveletskaya station, “in the depths of the hall like an altar ... the candelabra drenched the walls in wary light ... [I enter the hall of] the stained-glass panels of peasants, ... like the Parthenon, in uncle Nazar’s iron grip.”

For Mbobo, this is his “sanctuary” - not those churches up there “on the surface kingdom”. Mayakovskaya station “doesn’t have much in common with his poetry, with its depictions of flight, except for his clouds in trousers”! (Seen through a fisheye lens, it looks like a giant Fabergé egg!) Then there is Komsomolskaya station, with its “perfectly measured pillars made of light Gazgan marble”. There are many ordinary stations further out from the centre too - where mummy might bash Mbobo’s head against one of their ordinary pillars. All too soon he will lie in the damp earth and wait for the resurrection, hopefully!

Mbobo’s story ends at Ploshchad Revolyutsii station:

Trains race back and forth, but Anna Karenina is not on them, nor is my mummy, Moscow. [There is only] emptiness, complete emptiness ... the bridge between my present, other-worldly reality of death and the former unreality of what I called life.

But it is also the end of the Soviet Union: near Prospekt Mira station,

I bumped into Nazar, who, keeping with the new times, had traded his grey cop’s uniform for a long business coat almost to his heels: he was now engaged in property speculation in the Arbat ... he was stepping out not to defend soviet power, but his business.

At Park Kultury, Uncle Gleb and his two associates, drunk and dressed like the tramps they have become, wait for uncle Nazar. When he arrives, together they toast “the new Russia”. Uncle Gleb recites a Pushkin poem about hope and freedom. But later at Oktyabrskaya station, in this “underground temple”, they stab Nazar fatally in the throat. Yes, “Gleb, who used to chase mummy with a knife”. The dead Nazar, epitome of vigour and strength in life, was an officer of the MVD (internal affairs ministry) with connections in the police and government. Sentenced to manslaughter through “reckless indifference”, Gleb is deported to Siberia. Not a lot has changed!

“Ladies and gentlemen, this train terminates here. Please exit the cars!” (But beware of the pickpockets waiting to fleece you).