For the Joy of Reading: The Underground

This is a very odd book.   That is the only way I can think of describing.   The story is told by a dead by who is haunting the Moscow underground, which is what he used to do when he was alive.   The story is set at the time of glasnost and perestroika as the Soviet Union was slowly transforming itself back into Russia.   And the hero of the story is Kirill, otherwise known as Mbobo, which gives you an idea of the complexity of his ethnic origin.

His father was an African athlete visiting the Soviet Union and has no other role in the story except to be the father of Mbobo.   His mother, called Moscow after the city, came from a small Siberian town and her mother was from Khakassia and her father Russian, a supposed descendant of Alexander Nevsky.   All this is important for the story because Mbobo’s blackness lies very much at the heart of this story.

What happens is that Mbobo is dead, and he is telling his life story as his body decomposes, and the maggots begin to devour him.   This is how we learn of his obsession with the Moscow Metro, and especially with the majestic artistry of the stations.   This is the story of a black boy growing up in the Soviet Union at the time of its own decomposition.   It is the story of a child from a minority dealing with discrimination at a time when the green light appears to have been given to casual racism.   It is a very apposite tale for Great Britain at the moment.

But it is also a tale steeped in Russian literature.   Kirill’s nickname is Pushkin because both he and the poet were black.   But there are also references to Gorky (how could you talk about the Moscow Metro without some reference to “The Lower Depths”?), Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and many others of the giants of Russian Literature.   Anna Karenina, of course, makes an appearance towards the end of the book.

In the story, we go from station to station meeting the people that are important in Mbobo’s life – his mother, her lovers, Gleb and Nazar and many more – with Gorbachev and Yeltsin hovering in the background as the historical events of the time are played out.

This is a profound book.   Its scope is huge.   It deals with the momentous through the everyday.   It is a book that will make you have to pause and think.   It is a book that you should read.

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