The Underground, by Hamid Ismailov

The Underground
The Underground

And now for the second book this week that puzzled me so much that I had to write a post about it. The Underground, by Hamid Ismailov, is a reflective story narrated by a dead child from Moscow. Mbobo, sometimes called Kirill or “Pushkin,” was probably doomed from the start. He’s the son of a Uzbek woman who came to Moscow to work during the 1980 Olympics and an athlete from an unnamed African country. His mother is disowned by her parents and makes a living on the margins of social acceptance. Mbobo’s mother and his various “step-fathers” are alternately abusive and solicitous to him. This didn’t confuse me. What confused me was Mbobo’s narrative style. The boy is a voracious reader. One of his step-fathers is a writer (but mostly a drunk). Mbobo tells his story with plenty of rhetorical and literary flourishes that make things hard to follow, while also raising the specter of an unbelievably precocious and self-aware juvenile narrator.

Mbobo tells us early in The Underground that he died only a few years after his mother. In non-linear fashion, Mbobo takes us back and forth from his earliest days to after his last day. (He seems to relish telling his audience about the insects that are feeding on his corpse.) Life is not terrible in the beginning, even though Mbobo’s mother is not terribly kind to him. She makes sure he’s fed, clothed, and sent to school when the time comes—but she’s not affectionate. Neither are the step-fathers. Thus, Mbobo takes kindness and love from wherever he can. He makes friends with a girl at school, but Zulita is one of the few people who are nice to him.

Over and over again, Mbobo comes up against virulent racism. Muscovites call him names—the n-word, Negro, monkey, demon—and beat him given half a chance or try to steal from him. Rather than becoming embittered, Mbobo remains innocent and bewildered more than anything else. Perhaps this is because he never had a chance to grow up. After his mother dies, Mbobo is bounced between his writer-alcoholic step-father, Gleb, and his militia-biznisman step-father, Nazar. When they fall out of the picture after the Soviet Union collapses, Mbobo is passed on to even less invested guardians before ending up on his own.

It would be easy to pass The Underground off as typical Russian tragic literature, but I suspect there’s more to this novel than meets the eye. Ismailov’s narrator frequently discusses or embodies the experience of non-Russians in Russia. Everyone looks down on someone. Russians look down on anyone who isn’t ethnically Russian. Non-Russians look down on other ethnic groups. And everyone seems to look down on people with African genes. I get the impression that no one in this book, except Zulita, saw Mbobo as a person.

It’s even hard for readers to see Mbobo as a person, because he speaks through stories more than anything else. While the stories one chooses to tell can reveal something of the teller’s psychology, I had a very hard time getting a firm sense of who Mbobo is. I’ve referred to him by the name in the book’s summaries, but the truth is that Mbobo’s identity is fluid. He’s Pushkin to one step-father and Kirill to people who’ve read his papers or who want to Russify him. If he had been allowed to grow up, we might have been able to see who Mbobo was. The only things we can say about him is that he loves to read and he is obsessed with Moscow’s metro system. Each brief chapter is named for a stop on the metro, but the reasons for this and Mbobo’s passion for the metro remain frustratingly opaque.

I’m left with two emotions after finishing The Underground. The first is a mix of anger and sadness on Mbobo’s behalf. The other is intellectual weariness.There are parts that Mbobo may have written that don’t make any sense at all. I wracked my brains to figure this book out, but there weren’t enough clues for me in the text.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 22 September 2015.