Sunday, March 3, 2013

Anywhere But Here: Sherga’s Underground Ship

Ekaterina Sherga’s Подземный корабль (The Underground Ship) is a neatly structured novel about Moscow in the noughties, in 2003, a setting that feels, in Sherga’s treatment, like a terribly lonely place. Sherga builds her novel in two lines, focusing on two main characters and their living spaces: Mstislav Romanovich Morokhov, a businessman, has just moved into an apartment complex called Madagascar and Alexander L. comes to inhabit an exclusive museum-like store called British Empire.

The Underground Ship tacks more toward atmosphere than plot, and Sherga, who writes with a light but very confident touch, somehow manages to build suspense that draws, in large part, on the two men’s housing situations. Madagascar is a brand-new double-tower complex but Morokhov is its only resident, swimming in the pool, ordering drinks from the bar, and occasionally running across mysterious people who aren’t members of the complex’s staff. The whole Madagascar experience seems more than a little strange; a description of a marketing video that shows a man grilling four huge skewers of shashlik sums things up nicely. The man smiles and the camera pulls away, showing the size of an uninhabited terrace, then we get, “Кого он собрался кормить? Какая-то метафора тотального одиночества.” (“Who was he going to feed? What a metaphor for total loneliness.”)

Alexander L. comes into the book a bit later, after he and Morokhov are in the same restaurant at the same time: one of Morokhov’s friends tries to remember details about Alexander L. but comes up short. Alexander L. overhears their conversation and commences to tell his own story, in diary form. He describes his work at oddball organizations (e.g. the Club for Traditional Values, which really brought me back to my years in Moscow) and then his hiring as a night watchman at British Empire, where he’s surrounded by lovely antique items. After British Empire stops serving the public, (not that much of anybody ever came to buy much of anything anyway), Alexander L. stays on rent-free, not quite able to figure out who runs things. He eventually gets in touch with old friends and slides into a new career.

I found the housing situations in The Underground Ship the most interesting piece of the book: Morokhov and Alexander L. both live alone, rattling around fairly large abodes and doing far more than just escaping the crowded communal apartments in fiction set in the Soviet era. Morokhov solves a mystery of sorts, even if it’s only a mystery to him. And Alexander L. feels like a cousin of other apartment sitters I’ve met—the main character of Mikhail Butov’s Freedom, for example, and Petrovich in Vladimir Makanin’s Underground—meaning he’s uncertain about his place in life. He even has to go through all sorts of fuss to gather up his documents, papers that prove aspects his identity. In the course of retrieving his papers, he takes a bus, where the man next to him throws up. Alexander L. sits there, cold, tired, broke, unemployed. “Вот что я, такой умный, получил от жизни, смог выбить из неё. Вот мне за всё награда.” (Literally, “There’s what I, so smart, got from life, what I managed to beat out of it. There’s my reward for everything.”)

Of course Morokhov and Alexander L. both live in housing named for far-away places. And both places also feel temporally removed from 2003 Moscow, with the British Empire focused on the past—there’s even an old globe to emphasize geopolitical changes—and the uninhabited Madagascar feeling futuristic with its zipping elevators and modern architecture. The housing gives the impression that both men are living “anywhere but here.” Meaning anywhere but Moscow, Russia.

Morokhov doesn’t pretend to live on Madagascar and Alexander L. hasn’t traveled across time and borders to the British Empire, but both men seem, for varying reasons and to varying degrees, to be experiencing forms of what’s known in Russian as “внутренняя эмиграция” (internal emigration). Their (e)migrations become more real, more external, as the book progresses, though I don’t want to explain why. The two men’s plot lines briefly converge a few times but their situations complement each other beautifully, alternating and creating a steady balance of surrealism (a candle made to look like Morokhov’s head), odd humor (a party at which Titanic is reenacted), and suspense (who’s really running things?). All of which results in a wonderfully readable novel that feels both very real and, foggily, almost creepily, very abstract and lonely. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

P.S. I should have mentioned the SLOVO Russian Literature Festival, which begins in London on March 5, ages ago... but better late than never! Thank you to Academia Rossica for the reminder. Here’s the schedule: it includes some fun-sounding events, like, oh, a translator roundtable. I won’t be there but I’m going to Boston for a few days next week, for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, which has some interesting international and translation-related events on the schedule, too.
Disclaimers: I learned about The Underground Ship from author Ekaterina Sherga, a Facebook friend I have yet to met in real life.

Up Next: Favorites from the letter R. Igor Savelyev’s Терешкова летит на Марс, which is coming out this summer in Amanda Love Darragh’s translation for Glas; it’s known as Mission to Mars. Though I’ve only read a small part of Savelyev’s book, it feels like a nice follow up to The Underground Ship: it also takes place in the noughties and looks at ambitions, lifestyles, and crossing borders.


  1. I just did some digging and found a video where Sherga introduces herself, and learned that the stress is on the first syllable (SHER-ga), which is what I was trying to find out. I'm leaving this here both to satisfy the curiosity of others and so I will be able to rediscover the information when I (inevitably) forget!

    (I'm also curious about the origin of the name, so if anybody knows, by all means share.)

    1. Thank you for this comment, Languagehat: strange but I was thinking of this book just yesterday... it has stuck with me. And thank goodness for videos: I've resorted to videos more than once to resolve stress issues, too!