Little Zinnobers is not an easy read and presents many challenges, especially to an English-speaking readership. Even the title is problematic, coming from a short story “Little Zaches, Great Zinnobers” by E T A Hoffman, hardly a household name, in the UK at least, and unlikely to signpost the novel’s subject.
At its heart it is a school story about a dedicated and charismatic teacher in a model Soviet school who organises the school theatre and uses Shakespeare to teach her pupils not only the beauties of great literature but about life in general and in particular life in the USSR. The novel is narrated by one of her star-struck pupils, through whose eyes we watch events unfold, but through whose eyes we also come to realise that not only is F a gifted teacher, she is also capricious and often cruel, and her desire to instil in the children a love of Shakespeare is often at odds with her behaviour towards them.
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. Although firmly rooted in its time and place, its emphasis on the power of art to educate and enlighten in a totalitarian state is just as pertinent in today’s world. Personally, however, I found it heavy-going and the characters difficult to relate to. Without the afterword I would have been very much at sea, and feel it is a book very much for the Russophile rather than the general reader.