The story of a half-African, half-Siberian child growing up in the fast-changing Moscow of the 1980s, The Underground has been called one of the “ten best Russian novels of the 21st Century,” and “a master class in how to write the Russian postmodern novel” (Continent Magazine). In this subtle and atmospheric novel, exiled Uzbek author and BBC journalist Hamid Ismailov provides a tour of the Soviet capital, on the surface and beneath, in the years before the fall. Though deeply engaged with great Russian authors of the past—Dostoyevsky, Turgenyev, Gorky, Nabokov, and above all, Pushkin—Ismailov is an emerging master of a new kind of Russian writing that revels in the sordid reality and diverse composition of the country today.
The meaning of words that have gone before
is lost, although something still remains to be said…
I am Moscow’s underground son, the result of one too many nights on the town. My mother Moscow (though everyone called her Mara, or Marusia) was born in some little Siberian town or other, maybe Abakan, maybe Tayshet and, with that town’s strange name in her passport, she picked me up in the year of the Moscow Olympics—or maybe earlier, during the preparations—from an African sportsman from a “friendly country.” She was one of the limitchitsa*, working as friendly civil patrols in the Olympic village. “We were sent out to them, but they came into us, all right!” she explained later, drunk. And so that is how I came about, a cross between a bulldog and a rhinoceros: Kirill, by the name of Mbobo. My mother died when I was eight, and I died four years later. And that is all there is to my Moscow life. The rest is just decaying, late-blown blooms of memories.
When you are condemned to spend your largely unlived Khakass-nigger life underground, your closest friend is not the maggot chewing on your slit-lilac eyes, nor the roots of the disheveled fir tree sucking the dark paint out of you in the night, nor even the other dead, each rotting alone; no, it is the metro that becomes your best friend. And not because, when you reached the age of five, out of lack of money, your sobered-up mother gave you a many-hued metro map and said: “This is a portrait of you, Mbobo, my prickly little sunshine!” And not because I always fled from the terrors and delusions of life on the surface to the kingdom where even I was a pale shadow, indistinguishable by color or fate; and not even because my days ended there and my nights began in that neighborhood. No! The metro became my best friend simply because when the ground hums, when a passing train shivers not far away, then bones knock together, teeth chatter in rhythm, and little ants, building their abodes, scatter and creep through the darkness where there once was skin.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this train terminates here. Please exit the cars…”
The first book Mommy bought me was about a scary plant named Periwinkle. I was afraid to be alone with that book, especially the rough sketches of a prickly burdock that teemed over the pages from all sides. One day I decided to get rid of that book, so I took some matches to the garbage chute at the top of the staircase in our hostel and torched that book. But then that Periwinkle, with its dry bract, flared up in such a way that the flames jumped over onto my wide sharovari pants, and I yelled as loud as I could. The neighbors came running out, rolled me around on the floor, put out the flames but not the fear that was still afire in me, screaming. “Don’t tell Mommy! Don’t tell Mommy!” But they told Mommy as soon as she came home, and then she whipped me in our tiny room with her thick ladies’ belt.
I remember how my blackened skin burned under each stripe being laid out on my back and butt. I yelped in pain, but what I feared most was that Mommy would stop and tell me the most terrible thing, the thing I was more afraid of than pain: “Now get your things and go to your father!” Where in all of black, hot Africa—which sounded like hell to me—was I supposed to go? But having flogged me with her rhetorical: “Gonna do that again? Are you?” she left me pressed into the hot bunk as she crumbled dry corn onto the floor, then made me kneel on it with bare knees. That’s how that stinking burdock got its revenge on me, laughing from the walls, masquerading as the metro map…
Later, when my first stepfather—Mommy finally told me not to call him “Uncle Gleb,” but “Daddy”—gave me a book with drawings of an underground fairytale city called Metro, and an ABC book with pictures of that same system, I would spend the long winter hours when they had left my three- or four-year-old self by the window (double-glazed and with cotton wool stuffed between the two sets of frames to keep the draft out) either staring warily at these two books, with pictures that looked like they had been drawn with a wet crayon, or peering into Moscow’s indigo darkness, which had something in common with those unearthly drawings, as well as with my warring, frightened innards. Maybe those books would bring some kind of misfortune down on me.
It was in that same third or fourth year of my life that I first dreamt about that underground town full of multicolored lights. And maybe because it was underground, or under floor, it shone much brighter than anything I’d ever seen in my waking life and, for some reason, it was this town I wanted to name after the word dearest to my heart: “Moscow.” Lightbulbs shone like stars, the noble polish of granite and marble glittered and gleamed, and that special warm and ethereal darkness made no distinction between the colors of faces—everything glittered and gleamed with the reflection of those same underground stars and underground moon, underground marble and underground granite, and I recognized that kingdom as my own. I dreamt that dream several nights in a row.
Then one day, not-Uncle-Gleb-but-Daddy took me to Moscow from Khimki-on-the-Left-Bank, where Mommy and I were living with him. Everyone in the wintry elektrichka** gawked at me, the way you would stare at an exotic insect at the “zoo. We got off and I thought I saw the Kremlin, but Daddy said it was just Leningradsky Station. Then we crossed the square and found ourselves at some massive temple doors.
Remember the entrance to the metro from the Kazansky railway station? Regal doors flung wide open under eleven lamps, spanned by an enormous arch with the enormous letters METRO, and above the arch, like the turreted symbol of Moscow, synonymous with the Kremlin, a zigzag, the wide open legs of the letter M, luminous with ruby light…
I felt in my black guts that I was entering a new world. The air coming from those wide-open doors was stale with the smell of muscly sweat. People with suitcases and bundles were making their way, like ants, to the turnstiles. I knew two fairy tales that could help me here: one was about a little orphan boy whose mother disappeared into a gaping cliff, and you had to say: “Rock, crack open!” and then the monolith would open its great muzzle. And the second story was about Ali Baba, who could slip into his cave at will with the magic password: “Open sesame!” The first story terrified me; the second tickled my curiosity.
Uncle Gleb—Daddy—led me to the iron box on the wall and put a small coin into it. Large five-kopek coins spilled out in reply. Ah, how generous was that world! He handed one to me and explained how to slip through the gate when the rubber-ended metal pincers parted, and how it opened up for only a brief moment. Heart racing, I took a long look back at the entrance into this world where, going into the unknown, downward, lamps shone as figures floated past. “Daddy, why are we leaning backward but the people coming toward us are leaning forward?” I babbled on the escalator, hiding my fear behind “curiosity.
“No, Son,” he explained. “We’re all standing up straight. It’s just that our escalator’s going down, and theirs is going up. It’s what’s called an optical illusion.”
“And what’s an optical illusion?”
“You’ll find out when you’re older.”
“And when will I be older?”
“When you find out what an optical illusion is.”
I was flying along at Uncle Gleb’s side, holding his hand. He yanked me off the escalator—you can’t look back—and into the underground snow palace, a kingdom of marble and white stone, with pillars instead of columns, with a never-ending dome stretching to infinity instead of a ceiling. Never in my life, my life on the other side, on the surface, had I seen such beauty, such splendor. My Daddy, an experienced guide, didn’t rush me as I stared, wide-eyed. He led me slowly and ceremoniously from one mighty pillar to the next; they stretched along the painted arc into the dome and were decorated with tendrils of stone leaves. This world entered my pounding heart in tremors, and I felt that no one would be able to drag me back from this world or this world back out of me…
But all of a sudden, into the hustle and bustle of people danced a thin whistle. The train, with a blue-green stripe, suddenly ripped between the pillars, gnashing and screeching. Terrified, I shrunk into a ball as my stepfather said: “Let’s go!”
It was a metro train. Its doors opened and, like blood from the throat of a slaughtered rooster, people spurted out. The passengers waiting on the platform, including us, were sucked into the void.
“Watch the closing doors!” a disembodied, rasping voice boomed out, and I sensed that the only thing ahead of me was oblivion, made more bearable by that same rough voice: “The next station is Lermontovsky.”
But I didn’t make it to Lermontovsky. I stayed forever at my primordial station, mired in my tears. If ever I was mortally swindled, then it was in the metro that day. Nurtured by my dreams and the pictures in the ABC book, I had never expected that this marble palace-station would suddenly stop short and that nothing but a dark tunnel would open up, as though it were pouring out of me with the involuntary muddy tears of childhood’s unforgiving disappointment.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. This rude deceit was so obvious: miles and miles of maggoty darkness, the sudden flashes of those mendacious stations—now a different one, then another—illusory, “deceptive, ephemeral, so contrary to my dreams of my underground city that never ends. It was like drawing a picture on the first page of the ABC book and then simply leaving empty leaves, only to interrupt that emptiness later, on page ten or page twelve, with another colorful picture drawn with a wet crayon. The uninterruptedness of my child’s world was broken once and for all. As I now understand, then and there I was thrown against my will into the cobbled and re-cobbled world of the grownups, into the optical illusion…
* A person with temporary permission to live and work in Moscow. These were often young people from far-flung regions of the Soviet Union.
** Elektrichkas are small trains that run from city centers to the surrounding countryside.
HAMID ISMAILOV is an Uzbek journalist and writer who was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1992 for the United Kingdom, where he now works for the BBC World Service. His works are still banned in Uzbekistan. His writing has been published in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish and other languages. His books of poetry include Sad (Garden) (1987), and Pustynya (Desert) (1988). His books of visual poetry include Post Faustum (1990) and Kniga Otsutstvi (1992). He is the author of the novels Sobranie Utonchyonnyh (1988), Le Vagabond Flamboyant (1993), and many others. He has translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and several Western languages. Ismailov’s novel The Railway, originally written before he left Uzbekistan, was published in 2006 in an English translation by Robert Chandler; a Russian edition was published in Moscow in 1997. A Poet and Bin-Laden, translated by Andrew Bromfield, was published in September 2012.
About the Translator:
CAROL ERMAKOVA studied German and Russian language and literature and holds an MA in translation from Bath University. She first visited Russia in 1991. More recently, Carol spent two years in Moscow working as a teacher and translator. Carol currently lives in the North Pennines and works as a freelance translator.