Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 6, 2019

Little Zinnobers, by Elena Chizhova, translated by Carol Ermakova

Little Zinnobers (2000), with its unusual title, is the debut novel of the winner of the ‘Russian Booker’, Elena Chizhova.  She won the award for The Time of Woman (2009), which was about life in Soviet Russia following the 900-day WW2 German siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  I haven’t read that one, but Goodreads says it’s about the secret culture of resistance and remembrance amongst the mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters of Russia. Well, so too is Little Zinnobers,  a novella which features characters almost entirely female and is about an heroic yet quixotic teacher teaching fundamental human values in a totalitarian state.

In the illuminating Afterword, which I recommend reading first, the title is explained.  It derives from characters in the fairy tales of E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822), which most of us will know only from the three stories on which Offenbach’s opera ‘The Tales of Hoffman‘ is based.  But in Eastern Europe Hoffman’s collection is as well-known as Grimm’s and Perrault’s, and Chizhova could expect many people to recognise the allusion: it comes from a tale called ‘Klein Zaches, gennant Zinnober’ which means ‘Little Zaches, Great Zinnober’ in which the dwarf* Zaches is put under a spell that makes everyone think he is more handsome and intelligent that he really is.  Chizhova’s novel not only exposes the children in F’s class as ‘Little Zinnobers’, but also the Soviet State itself.

According to the Afterword, the novella is partly autobiographical.  It tells the story of a pupil besotted by her charismatic teacher, who teaches a selective group of pupils the works of Shakespeare, in English.  Beginning with demands that they recite sonnets by heart though they barely understand the Early Modern English that Shakespeare used, F then progresses to theatrical performances of selected scenes, in costume, which come to be performed for astonished Western visitors observing the Soviet system of education.

But while the performances impress, as did Soviet achievements in science, space and medicine, they are likewise achieved at great cost.  The narrator gets her first audition after scrubbing the classroom on her hands and knees, and she later risks her health after a near fatal bout of pneumonia because she fears that she will lose her favoured place with F.  The pupils are not the cohesive team that they appear to be: they sabotage each other, they spy on each other, and they blackmail each other, just as people do in a surveillance state.  Their teacher is loved, as most of us love our country, but she is also sometimes erratic, cruel, brutally demanding and impossible to please, and her punishments are extreme and capricious.  Just like the Soviet leadership.

There is much to enjoy in this novella, but it is difficult reading.  The Afterword really is excellent, not just in terms of this novella but in terms of Russian and Soviet literature in general.  (Consulting Goodreads, I find that Rosalind Marsh has written half-a-dozen interesting books about Russian literature.)  Without this Afterword, I doubt if I would have understood as much as I did, had I not read it first.  There are footnotes throughout the text, some of which explain elements that non-Russians are unlikely to know, but others point to a more detailed explanation in the Afterword.  But the choppy narrative style, and the fragmented episodes do sometimes make it difficult to follow the sequence of events and to understand motivations of the characters.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting example, yet again, of the veiled way in which Soviet/Russian writers use satire to expose socio-political issues that are still relevant today.  And it enabled me to read some of the excerpts from Shakespeare with fresh eyes, like this one, which F listens to as she nears death:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood,
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws
And burn… (Sonnet 19)

Terrible and soft, tender and inescapable, merciless and magnanimous, even as stonework, undulating as desert sand, hot and impenetrable, inexpressible and determined, invisible and dense, like air — her last cycle, about her adversary, the one she faced, one to one, from birth to death, like a seawall under high tide’s onslaught.  (P.126)

There is a profile of Chizhova at Read Russia.

*As in many fairy tales, Hoffman’s tale presents an offensive stereotype of the dwarf.  I apologise for this but it’s not possible to explain the meaning of the title without reference to the original fairy tale.

Author: Elena Chizhova (b. 1957)
Title: Little Zinnobers (Крошки Цахес)
Translated from the Russian by Carol Ermakova
Afterword: Rosalind Marsh, Oxford University
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 236 pages (169 pages for the novella and 67 pages for the Afterword), first published in Russian in 2000
ISBN: 9781911414384
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

 


Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’ll add this to my list as well. Challenging, difficult, but oh so tempting.

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    • I like the sound of The Time of Women too:)

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  2. The dangers of charismatic teachers! I just looked in an online dictionary, as the name Zinnobers was new to me; if it’s right (it is online, after all), it can signify ‘cinnabar’, a vermilion-pigmented mineral found in mercury, but also ‘piece of junk’. According to a 2014 post on the Hoffman tale at the Intermittencies of the Mind blog, the story is also a satire on Romanticism, the Enlightenment, confused identity, etc. Is it possible then that the teacher F is herself a little Zinnober? Bear in mind I haven’t read the Russian novella or the Hoffman…

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  3. I love an annotated obscure classic, there aren’t enough of them, and footnotes are so much better, so much easier to integrate with reading the text, than endnotes. Do you think this one would have been improved by having the Afterword spread along the bottom of the main text (that reminds of Coetzee’s three level text)?

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    • No, No I don’t think that would have been better. I liked it the way it was. I wouldn’t want more footnotes, I find them distracting.

      I read the Afterword first … I was just flipping through the book looking at the names of the chapters, and when I got to the Afterword, I just scanned the first paragraph and was then hooked. Having that solid grasp of what the author was doing with this difficult text really enhanced the reading.

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  4. Thank you for this review – it’s really exciting to see more recent Russian language fiction being translated and this book was completely new to me. It’s duly been added to the list :-)
    It also sounds like it could make an interesting comparison with Sologub’s extremely odd pre-Revolutionary ‘The Little Demon’ which also deals with a school teacher who could be seen as representing an arbitrary and cruel regime…

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    • I’d be very interested to see what you make of it, because you are so widely read in Russian Lit!

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