Is it possible to cultivate fundamental human values if you live in a totalitarian state? A teacher who has organised the school theatre sets out to prove that it is. Whilst the pupils rehearse Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies under her ever-vigilant eye, Soviet life begins to make its brutal adjustments. This story can be called a book about love, the tough kind of love that gets you through life and death.
Little Zinnobers is especially fascinating for British readers as we see Shakespeare’s famous sonnets and plays touchingly brought to life by the Russian children and their gifted teacher, the novel’s heroine. The teacher applies some of the playwright’s satire to the socio-political situation of the USSR, while also using her English lessons to teach her students life’s broader lessons.
Echoes of the Soviet Union can be felt in our own society today: people find themselves increasingly at odds with politicians’ hypocrisy, “big brother” is watching us through thousands of CCTVs, whilst political correctness determines what we can and cannot say. It is these subtle undercurrents which help make Chizhova’s novel particularly pertinent for today’s readership. Apart from being a magnificently written first-rate story, Little Zinnobers is unique in the fact that it goes beyond the realm of politics and fiction to shed a new light on the relevance of British literary heritage today.
Published with the support of the Institute for Literary Translation, Russia.
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Elena Chizhova was born in 1957 in Leningrad, the city which provides the setting for her award-winning The Time of Women, a novel about the secret culture of resistance and remembrance amongst women of Russia. Chizhova, a former economist, teacher and entrepreneur, turned to writing in 1996 after being rescued from a burning cruise ship. Her beautiful and sensitive prose has already been recognized in her homeland: she is the winner of the Northern Palm and the Literary Premier of Zvezda journal in 2001, as well as of the Russian Booker Prize in 2009. Chizhova’s prose shuns trickery in favour of emotional honesty in order to probe the weeping sores of Russian history that contemporary culture would sooner forget. Chizhova is the director of the local PEN centre in St. Petersburg.
Carol Ermakova, MA, studied Russian and German Language and Literature at St. Andrews University, Scotland, graduating with First Class Honours. She went on to gain an MA in Contemporary Russian Studies at SSEES, University of London, and an MA in Translation and Interpreting from Bath University. Ermakova first visited Russia as a student in the turbulent Perestroika years, later returning to live and work in Moscow as well as St. Petersburg. Ermakova has travelled widely throughout the former Soviet Union, including several visits to Central Asia, most notably Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand. She now lives in the North Pennines, UK, where she works as a free-lance translator specialising in contemporary Russian literature. Her published translations include The Underground by Hamid Ismailov, and Little Zinnobers by Russian Booker prize-winner Elena Chizhova as well as the script for award-winning documentary film Ulugh Beg. The Man Who Unlocked The Universe.
Endorsements and Review Quotes
“A number of major novels have appeared in Russia in the 21st century which, like this one, chronicle the subtle changes to everyday life which indicated that major political, social and cultural change was afoot in the post-Stalin Soviet era. […] Little Zinnobers covers the ten years from 1964, when the narrator/author was seven, and records the attitudes among teachers and pupils to, for example, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, shot by the Bolsheviks, to Solzhenitsyn’s epic Gulag Archipelago, or Vladimir Vysotsky’s portrayal of Hamlet at the Taganka theatre; attitudes which reflect changes in the wider Soviet Union.” Michael Pursglove, East-West Review
“This is a serious and thoughtful work of literature but a difficult read, fragmented and episodic, full of references to both Russian and foreign cultural figures and works of literature. Thankfully there is a long afterword by Rosalind Marsh, which is not just useful but I feel essential to anything like a proper understanding of the novel.” Mandy Jenkinson, Historical Novel Society
“Chizhova turns to her native city, and tells the story of a girl studying in an English school, suffering through teachers’ humiliation and acting Shakespeare for foreign delegations that come often to inspect the Soviet Potemkin villages.” Alexandra Guzeva, Russia Beyond the Headlines
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