Liza Alexandrova-Zorina was born in 1984 in a little town on Cola Peninsula beyond the Arctic Circle (the setting of her prize-winning novel The Little Man). After school graduation she left her native town for Moscow where she soon became a prolific journalist, film-maker, popular columnist on leading opposition periodicals, and a public activist.
Liza was a finalist in two important literary competitions: Debut Prize and NOS (2012) with her novel The Little Man, and also won of the Northern Star Prize (2010) for her collection of short stories The Rebel. Her latest novels The Broken Doll and Man is a Noun have been published by Eksmo in 1916. Her books were published in French, English, Arabic, Hindi, Ukrainian, Estonian. The Little Man was published in English (GLAS).
Critics compared her writings to Dostoyevsky’s. “I put her novels on the same shelf as works by Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov.” – Martine Van Goubergen, critic, Brussels
“Liza is a fabulous writer. She has created an original universe which is typical of Russian literature.” – Bernard Werber
“Even though it's so dark, there's something that shines through as redeemable - perhaps it's just the ability to reveal the darkness for what it is without condoning it.” – Melanie Moore, translator of The Little Man
“Live dialogues, vivid imagery, striking metaphors. Colorful ethnographic details… Merciless and beautiful prose, pithy and precise, leaves no one unmoved…” – Book Review
“A frightening vision of Russia – this is how our young generation see their country. This is a novel of social protest written by a confident hand.” – Ex Libris
“Liza Alexandrova-Zorina sincerely feels for her weak and downtrodden characters, and her co – feeling for those unfortunates magically elevates them and ennobles her writing.”– SNOB
“The image of the ‘little man’ features in the works of Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, and Gorky. In Western literature this traditions is taken further by Camus, Beckett and Kafka. In other words, our Liza Alexandrova – Zorina is in good company which means that readers will expect her to live up to this level.” – Free Press
“Her writings reflect her active public position and social protest. She depicts the life of ‘redundant’ people who had failed to find a place in our society. These ‘humiliated and insulted’ individuals are nevertheless prepared to fight for their rights. Liza paints graphic pictures of squalid provinces, Moscow mafia, police lawlessness, and people’s helplessness in today’s Russia.” – ThankYou.ru
Man is a Noun
A novel. 300 pp. Eksmo, 2016
This is a novel about the tragedy of being different in an indifferent and intolerant society, of being humble and introspective where lawlessness prevails. Traditionally for this author, it is concerned with the Chekhovian theme of the “little man” whose meekness and lack of material ambition renders him helpless and vulnerable. Such people always bear the blame when things go wrong while the real culprits, if they have wealth and power, escape unpunished. In the end, however, the protagonist comes to a broader interpretation of guilt and realizes it is a burden borne by every single person.
The novel opens with the mysterious murder of Elsa, a middle-aged woman whose hobby was using her binoculars to spy on people from the window of her flat. The protagonist is a local authority social worker, the first point of call for psychological support to a wide range of clients, who are often in need of someone to talk to rather than professional help:
“As a social worker I had to deal with lonely old people, orphans, problem families, lunatics, disabled people, single mothers who threw receipts in my face as if I were the one responsible for their pitiful allowance, with women who imagined they were being followed, and men expecting to be kidnapped by extra-terrestrials, - in short, all sorts of crackpots, their hearts inside out and their lives upside down. What could I do for them? I needed help myself.”
At the age of 40 he had a minor stroke which left him with face blindness and a hand tremor. Fearing dismissal, he does his best to conceal his condition. Shy and retiring since childhood, he inherited these attributes from his father who himself died at 40, again from a stroke. His domineering mother despises him for being ineffectual and unenterprising.
The protagonist (who is not named) is arrested as a suspect in Elsa’s murder. Elsa had confided in him that she had witnessed a crime being committed and was about to tell him more when their session ended and he left. By the time he returns, she has been murdered.
In prison awaiting trial, the man figures out that Elsa was killed because she saw a man across the street, a newspaper owner, murder his wife. He went on to declare his wife missing before ultimately announcing her return. It is evident to the protagonist that it is a different woman but everybody else pretends not to notice. Elsa was planning to blackmail the newspaper owner and mentioned the murder to several neighbors. The man implicates the lowly social worker in Elsa’s murder, has him imprisoned and, through his stooges, tries to persuade him to accept the blame.
The investigation and the trial reveal the bias and corruption of the police and the judges and show how skillfully they juggle the evidence. During the investigation, the people who know the poor social worker all turn against him. No one is on his side. He is generally disliked for being different.
From the conversation of the accused with his lawyer:
“I think the prosecutor hates me.”
“That’s his job.”
“What about the judge?”
“His sympathies are obviously not with you.”
“But I’m innocent.”
“I’ll be acquitted. I’m innocent.”
“Well, sonny, no one is innocent, we’re all guilty of something, punished or not.”
During his semi-delirious captivity, the man recalls various instances when he might have helped someone but didn’t, his inactivity leading to tragedy or even death. Like when he met a teenage girl who had run away from home because her violent stepfather threatened to kill her for the next bad mark. Nevertheless he took her back home and the next morning heard that the girl had been murdered. She had received her bad mark for a piece of homework in which she had to define the following notions: man, people, country, authorities, and the law. Here are the girl’s answers:
““Man is a noun. The people are the inmates of our communal apartment. A country is a territory with some borders. Power belongs to those who have everything, and those who have no power are nobody. The law – to each his own.”
Confined in his solitary cell, the protagonist can no longer distinguish between reality and hallucinations and his only occupation is to look back on his past life, trying to get at the roots of his ill luck: his failed marriages, lack of career growth, poverty, and the start of his face blindness. He relives his life in retrospect and talks to himself constantly, saying all those things he had intended to say to people but never did. He now sees his past life, which seemed so dull at the time, as relatively happy compared to his prison ordeals.
He reasons: “Some people compulsively think of the future all the time while others dream of the past, remodeling it as if they can change anything, they redraft it again and again reliving what other people had long put behind them and forgot about, and they keep re-interpreting people’s words and actions. I belong to the second breed, those who get bogged down in their past and move forward with back to front as it were.”
At one point he is transferred from solitary confinement to an overcrowded cell where he is taunted, beaten and bullied by the other occupants. Here he hears all sorts of stories about how his fellow inmates landed in prison, not all of them for real crimes.
As his trial approaches, the protagonist feels increasingly guilty for his past passivity towards people he met and responsible for their misfortunes. During the trial, everybody witnesses against him while the crucial facts in his favor are withheld. The accused feels psychologically crushed and doomed. When the time comes for his concluding statement, he suddenly blurts out that he is guilty. His words are taken at face value to the delight of the real culprit who believes his pressure and bribes have secured the desired verdict. In fact, the protagonist is declaring his guilt for a life poorly lived, a guilt he shares with the rest of humanity.