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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Little Zinnobers

Elena Chizhova

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To purchase Little Zinnobers

Title: Little Zinnobers
Author: Elena Chizhova
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 236 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Little Zinnobers - US
Little Zinnobers - UK
Little Zinnobers - Canada
  • Russian title: Крошки Цахес
  • Translated by Carol Ermakova
  • With an Afterword by Rosalind Marsh

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Our Assessment:

B : strong writing; neat picture of a slice of mainly 1970s Soviet life

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Little Zinnobers is a school-years novel, and an homage to an influential teacher -- a woman who makes a very strong impression on her students, but also remains an elusive mystery-figure; so also, in the present day, the narrator finds: "I can no longer speak her name" and refers to her throughout simply as 'F.'. The novel appears to be closely based on the author's own experiences, and her school days in late 1960s and 1970s Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg) in the Soviet Union.
       F. takes over the narrator's English class, and makes an immediate impression: she was "improbably small", her name was an unusual one (apparently her mother was Tartar-Russian and "never learnt to speak Russian properly"), and her English was fluent -- much better than of the teachers the kids were used to. Filling in the little biographical background that she is aware of, the narrator mentions that F. already came across a Russian translation of Chaucer when she was six, and that, despite her unlikely family background, she went on to university, suggesting both great determination and talent. F. was fluent in numerous languages: beside her mother tongue, there's "Russian, English, German, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic" ("which she spoke as a child"). She also loves literature -- true literature -- and passes that passion on to her students, particularly in having them perform and recite Shakespeare.
       F. isn't particularly approachable -- there's a sternness to her, and she certainly never opens up --, but the children are in awe of her, and devoted to her. The narrator's description of her as a: "trueborn oriental sovereign" captures her mystique and standing well. Their First English School -- "the ultimate in cronyism in those days" -- is the pride of the District, and one to which prominent visitors are taken, to see exemplary Soviet education in practice, and so the kids are often on display. The success of the performances F. arranges -- including one student's particularly good Hamlet -- also gives the class an even more privileged status. There's quite a bit of 'let's put on a show' in Little Zinnobers, but Chizhova's presentation is light and quick, and covers performances over years and years and, like the classroom routine itself, only occasionally zooms in on particulars.
       This is a time of some rumbling dissent; at one point, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago appears, and there are those (including the narrator's father) who follow readings of it on the 'radio voices' (foreign broadcasts like the BBC and Voice of America). F.'s focus is more timeless, and so she also isn't much impressed by the modern literature some of her students begin to praise. One memorable scene has a student floundering as he speaks the praises of the likes of Aksyonov, Belov, Voznesensky, and Solzhenitsyn and F. remains unconvinced; his argument that: "The intelligentsia hold these authors in very high esteem" falls particularly flat ("I don't understand this word", F. tells him -- and his attempt at explaining the term ("Educated people who are interested in everything") only brings out even more ridicule from F.) Another time, there's some interest in putting on: "A real, modern play. Our problems. Natural ..." -- but F. is outraged by the idea, denouncing it: "That play's for a sleazy bar, not for the choosy. It's a crowd-pleaser"; she can't even bring herself to describe what it's about. She says:

     "I previewed it. For as long as I am in the school, they will not show this. They consider this real life, if this moves them -- let them be moved at the nearest rubbish dump. Real life," her eyes took in the whole room, "Is more disgusting and vile than anything he can imagine.
       Little Zinnobers focuses on those school years under F., short chapters and episodes moving quite quickly across the years but even in this quite rapid passing giving a good sense of at least some aspects of urban Soviet life in those years. A few flashes to earlier times, and some ahead, including then in the conclusion to F.'s physical decline, years later, also make for a fuller portrait of teacher and times -- though F. remains a figure about whom much remains unknown (as is often the case for students, who can barely imagine their teachers' lives outside the classroom).
       The narrator has a central position, though for much of the novel she presents it mainly as part of the class and group, seen in relation to different friends, classmates, her parents, and, of course, F. Much is introspective, and yet the narrator only to a limited degree stands out as an individual; only in a few episodes, such as a when she is ill and hospitalized, is her focus truly tightly on herself.
       The title of the novel is taken from a work by E.T.A. Hoffmann, 'Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober' ('Little Zaches, Great Zinnober'), about dwarf Zaches, put under a spell that makes all that he does seem very impressive, and for which he gets praise he does not deserve. The story is mentioned several times in the novel, by F. and others, and though intrigued the narrator specifically mentions: "I didn't go to the Publichka to read it. I thought I should at first, but then didn't". Of course, the students are, in a way, 'Little Zaches' (so also the original Russian title of the novel).
       Chizhova writes with neat concision, but also manages to be very evocative. There's a restlessness to the narrative, which jumps about a bit, and the presentation, in fairly short chapters, contributes to the feeling of never really settling in; in this, of course, it is a good reflection of school days, where so much can change from year to year. Chizhova does convey the impression F. makes on her students (and others) well, and gives a good sense of Soviet life in those years, but it does remain a bit on the surface: much is (well) implied, but there's still a looseness to the whole picture.
       This translation also comes with a significant Afterword, by Rosalind Marsh. It's huge, for one: sixty-seven pages long, so well over a third the length of the novel proper. And Marsh presents an excellent overview of all the relevant aspects of the novel, from Chizhova's own literary background to the Soviet culture she grew up in, to the E.T.A. Hoffmann connections, to the role and standing of Shakespeare in Russia over the ages. It's more monograph than afterword, but certainly a useful and welcome companion-piece to the novel -- one wishes more contemporary fiction came with similar supporting material.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 March 2019

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Little Zinnobers: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Elena Chizhova (Елена Семеновна Чижова) was born in 1957.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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