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May 12, 2014

Book Notes - Hamid Ismailov "The Underground"

The Underground

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Continent Magazine called Hamid Ismailov's The Underground "one of the best Russian novels of the 21st century," and I agree it is one of the most impressive. Ismailov poetically illuminates the lives of Moscow's diverse inhabitants while painting a stunning and dark portrait of the capital city.

Transitions Online wrote of the book:

"The dream of grandeur is more than justified by the artfulness of The Underground, which...create[s] the motifs of blackness, subterranean movement, and isolation that are the novel’s strongest effects."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Hamid Ismailov's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Underground:


The Underground is set up as a meta-symphony, and the playlist is literally inbuilt into the novel. True, some of that music might not sound familiar to an American listener for a number of possible reasons: for example their age, perhaps their unfamiliarity with the Soviet civilization or Russian culture, but since nearly all of the music is available online, I hope to make the life of the reader easier, by linking the pieces which run through my novel and recreate that meta-symphony.

It starts with:

1. 'Malen'koy yolochke holodno zimoy' – 'The tiny Christmas-tree is feeling the winter cold'

Celebration of Christmas was never officially permitted in the USSR, along with other religious holidays, but at the same time the former was cunningly replaced by the New Year celebration.

The Underground begins with the scene of that celebration taking place in the Gorky Park around the pine-tree, but what Mbobo—the protagonist of this story—a boy of half-black, half-Siberian parentage receives at this quasi-Christmas holiday is his first experience of racial abuse and alienation. He feels the cold just like that tiny Christmas tree….

2. Vladimir Vysotsky's song 'I am running along with my Guinean friend Sam'

Many Westerners who know the songs of Vladimir Vysotski compare him to Bob Dylan, but he is actually completely different. Poets used to consider him an actor out of jealousy—and actors called him a bard for the same reasons—but people from cleaners to generals loved him as their everything. If there was ever an embodiment of the Russian soul in the ‘70s–‘80s, it was Vysotski. Here in the novel his posthumous voice teaches Mbobo to take everything easy, including his uncertain race:

And Sam Brook from Guinea
Overtook me by a lap
And yesterday all around
Were saying: Sam’s our friend
Sam’s our Guinean friend!

3. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number Five

"If I were to compare this station with something Russian, I would compare it with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which was performed in the second half of that concert. I felt with all my soul how multi-faceted and mono-faceted it was, how voice by voice it suddenly soars up in an unbearably loud common movement only to suddenly hide again in a lone voice, a melody, an instrument and then raise up again in the frenzied choir of the orchestra...."

Although growing Mbobo understands and experiences through his Moscow life how different and odd he is to others, the collective force similar to the orchestra tries to make him one of the bolts of the socialist society. As a Soviet poet once said: "If only one should make nails out of these people, for there are no stronger nails found in the world!"

4. Rachmaninov’s Vsenoshnaya – the so called "All-night song," which Mbobo sang in a choir.

Every Soviet parent wanted his or her child to excel to a superhuman degree in their studies of the arts and sport. But being the only black boy among all the white faces and shirts, Mbobo was placed at the very centre of the choir, yet not for his singing merits, but as a geometrically convenient focal point.

5. Valeriy Leontiev – "There in that September"

The Underground is a memory novel. Mbobo recollects his life from his grave, when his body is reduced to the bones, but his posthumous memories are still vivid. One of the sweetest and also most bitter recollections Mbobo shares is about his mother called Moscow, who died when he was 8 years old. The essence of that memory is captured by an unusual smash hit from those years, which combines the qualities of a gypsy romance and a rock ballade.

There, in that September
a maple leaf glistened like a star,
There was I happy, as I will never be, never...

6. Lezginka

Like his mother Moscow, who had conceived Mbobo with a gone-without-a-trace black sportsman/Olympian and who is currently lost in her relationship choice between a writer and a policeman (Body-Order-Creativity - as she puts it), Mbobo is also caught up in his love between his mum and two girls. One of them is his female alter ego—a Daghestani girl named Zulya—and the other one is called Lita (shorthand for Lolita)—his tragic love, who unlike divine Beatrice for Dante leads the steps of Mbobo's underground wanderings to the last stop—his suicide. As for Zulya: She is Mbobo's earthly love, a kind of a comrade-in-arms, who also experiences the same racial, ethnic, and religious tensions of the ordinary life as opposed to the all-singing, all-dancing Soviet communist ideology. Sadly these negative tendencies have dramatically increased in today's Moscow, where for instance people from Caucasus are banned from dancing Lezginka in public places. If Zulya were still alive she would also find herself subject to this recent xenophobic ban.

7. Dmitri Shostakovich – First Concerto for Violin

One of the poems of Mbobo is about this piece:

The end of a central Russian summer when
The water’s clear and the planes
Fly like first leaves on a pond’s smooth skin
Beyond the lifebelt’s ring, but falling short

Shall remind us of the lift passenger’s heart
At a shock and a thrust, a sudden downward start
Into the reversing sequence: ray-figure-sign
Like a climber collapsing into the fathomless ravine

Whose scream, traversing the ceiling askew
Embraces the audience, the hall, the players and all,
As though what I of the summer was unable to utter
Was voiced by the violin’s wood…

8. Georgy Sviridov – Vremya vpered!
9. Boney M - Sunny

The last years of Mbobo's life coincided with Gorbachev's Perestroika, when the Iron Curtain fell all of a sudden and everything got mixed up. Old elements of communism are very much alive in Sviridov's famous tune, while signposting every night's main TV news program were the disco sounds of Boney M, Abba, and the Bee Gees. "Everything is mixed up in the house of Oblonsky," quotes Mbobo, the famous beginning of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

10. Karl Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice

In his underground wanderings, which are reminiscent of Dante's infamous journey, Mbobo explores both the hell and paradise of his life. There he meets a girl, whom he falls in love with. But later this Lita turns out to be an underage prostitute. That is his Orphic destiny.

11. Sofia Gubaidulina – "A rider on a white horse"

The world of Mbobo is crumbling in an apocalyptic manner. The great experiment of the Russian soul on Russian soil, set out to create a perfect human-being, to which all Russian literature starting with Pushkin (another alter ego of Mbobo) had appealed, miserably and tragically fails. By committing suicide, Mbobo shuts the door of great hope which was opened by Pushkin.

12. Albinoni – Adagio in G minor

If there is a single musical piece which expresses and explains the life and feelings of Mbobo - both as protagonist and the narrator of The Underground - it's Albinoni's Adagio which itself is beyond and above word and comment...


Hamid Ismailov and The Underground links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

F News magazine review
Transitions Online review

2paragraphs interview with the author
The Kompass profile of the author
Molossus interview with the author
Restless Books interview with the author
Varsity interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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