The Underground

by Hamid Ismailov


Fiction from Restless Books
Translated from Russian

“I am Moscow’s underground son, the result of one too many nights on the town.” So declares Mbobo, the unforgettable twelve-year-old narrator of this captivating novel by exiled Uzbek author and BBC journalist Hamid Ismailov. Born to a Siberian woman and an African athlete competing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Mbobo spends his days navigating the subterranean arteries of the Metro and the challenges of being a fatherless, mixed-race boy in the precarious days of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

SKU: 107 Category:


  • Dimensions: 5-1/2″ x 8-1/4″
  • Page Count: 288 pages
  • ISBN: 9781632060440
  • Publisher: Restless Books

While paying homage to great Russian authors of the past—Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gorky, Nabokov, Pushkin—Ismailov emerges as the master of a new kind of Russian writing that probes the sordid post-Soviet present. The Underground is a dizzying and moving tour of the Soviet capital, on the surface and beneath, before its colossal fall.

Translated from Russian by Carol Ermakova


“Ismailov tells a haunting tale of an Afro-Russian boy’s search for love. Generous in spirit yet unsparing in its honesty, The Underground illuminates a loneliness that is as devastating as it is universal. In breathtaking prose, Ismailov reminds us again and again that even the slimmest thread of light can pierce through the darkest of days.”

—Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

“In reading Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground, I found the hard-won wisdom of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in conversation with the boyhood lyricism of Anne Carson’s Autobiography Of Red. But most crucially, simmering just under the skin of every word, I heard Ismailov’s own heartbeat: haunted, beautiful even when strained, and insistent. The world has conspired to keep this necessary and timely novel a secret for too long.”

—Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to a Bruise

“Exiled Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov weaves this story of mundane misery and visceral decay into a luminous elegy for late-Soviet Moscow.… Ably translated by Carol Ermakova.…  Ismailov’s novel inevitably invites comparison with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.… The Underground recreates a lost Moscow. The narrator’s memories map out a haunting, bittersweet cityscape, with landmarks that no longer exist and names that have long since changed.”

The Guardian

“In short, punchy chapters which trace the stations on the Moscow underground, Ismailov gives us a suitably gloomy portrait of the soul of Russia, fuelled by alcohol and alternately buttressed and assailed by history.… Ismailov’s prose, ably translated by Carol Ermakova, is dense and allusive, thick with references to Russian folklore and literature, from Gorky and Turgenyev to Dostoyevsky and—repeatedly and primarily—Alexander Pushkin. The Underground is a dark, gnarly, difficult novel, mining poetry from the squalid and the subterranean.… Its depiction of a damaged individual’s doomed attempt to plot a course through a dysfunctional and disintegrating society is consummate and compelling.”

The New Internationalist

“Brutal, poignant, and darkly funny—highly recommended.”

—Lisa Howorth, Square Books (Oxford, MS)

“Honest in a way that much Soviet literature could not be.… The layering of different literary references – to Mayakovsky, Yerofeyev, Anna Karenina – makes this a complicated novel to translate, and Carol Ermakova’s lyrical version is a worthy tribute to an intriguing book.”

Times Literary Supplement

“Every so often a book falls through my letterbox which makes me glad to be alive. Hamid Ismailov’s novel is one of them. The Underground is about decay, death and the end of empire but the writing is so powerful and poetic that it fills me with joy. And even though it is a short Russian novel of only 250 pages, it has all the lyricism, layers and depth of a doorstop Dostoevsky.… What a metaphor for the Soviet Union! In spite of some heavy referencing, including to Dostoevsky‘s Notes from the Underground, this is not a heavy-handed novel at all. It is a moving account of betrayal and deception but of the ability to find comfort and joy in poetry and stories and of the necessity of beauty.… Thanks also to his wonderful translator.”

European Literature Network

“Ismailov belongs to the tradition of Russian satirical novelists, from Gogol to Bulgakov and Platonov.”

The Independent

“A writer of immense poetic power.”

The Guardian

“Hamid Ismailov has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground.”

Literary Review

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