The “epigraph” for “The Dead Lake” tells us that “between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS) a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out, comprising 125 atmospheric and 343 underground blasts. The aggregate yield of the nuclear devices tested in the atmosphere and underground at the SNTS (in a populated region) exceeded by a factor of 2,500 the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans in 1945.”
Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan and moved to Uzbekistan as a young man before fleeing to the UK at age 40 because of his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. Our novella was originally written in Russian in 2011 and formed part of Peirene Press’s “Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity” series from 2014. I have reviewed the other two Peirene Press works “The Blue Room” and “Under The Tripoli Sky” here too.
Our novella is set in Kazakhstan during the nuclear testing period and follows the “coming of age” of Yerzhan, a twenty-seven year-old man trapped in the body of a twelve year old. Unlike another Kazakh novel I reviewed here a little while ago, “The Captain of the Steppe”, our story here really evokes the landscape, the endless horizon’s and the massive skies. Through lyrical prose, mixing folk songs, music descriptions and poetry interludes the barren place really comes to the fore throughout:
For anyone who has never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by this wilderness on all sides. But those who have lived here since time out of mind know how rich and variable the steppe is. How multi-coloured the sky above. How fluid the air all around. How varied the plants. How innumerable the animals in it and above it. A dust storm can spring up out of nowhere. A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling round the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine. The entire, imponderable weight of that immense, heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land.
Our tale is narrated by an unknown traveller, on the train, who comes across our “hero” Yerzhan as they pull into a stop and he alights the train to play the violin and sell refreshments, he then explains his macabre tale of how a grown man can have a child’s body. Amazingly I found myself thinking of the recently completed and reviewed “Zone” by Mathias Enard, as we have references to the Nuclear Test site being referred to as the “Zone” (capitalised) as well as our complete story taking place during the course of a train journey. The rhythm of a long journey also coming through in the language structure.
Steppe roads, even if they are railroads, are long and monotonous, and the only way you can shorten the journey is with conversation. The way Yerzhan told me about his life was like this road of ours, without any discernible bends or backtracking. His story ran on and on, just as the wires outside the window ran from post to post, accompanied by the beat of the wheels’ hammering. He recalled his distant childhood running back and forth between his house and Aisulu’s house. Not only to look at the still-speechless beauty, whose ear he had nibbled in token of an early engagement, but mostly for the sake of his uncle Shaken’s glittering metal objects. Shaken used to disappear on his work shifts for months at a time. He worked somewhere in the steppe. But more about that later. Just as we shall talk later about Shaken’s television, which he brought back from the city.
As there are only two families living in Yerzhan’s village the characterisations are small, however that does not mean the characters are thinly veiled, the donkey is a character, the silent grandmother’s, the musical instruments, but most of all we learn of Yerzhan’s love for Aisulu, and how that is destroyed by him visiting and swimming in the waters of “The Dead Lake” – surely enforcing his deformities:
Towards evening Uncle Shaken took the children to the Dead Lake. ‘Don’t drink the water and do not touch it,’ he told them. It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples, no trembling – a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys’ and girls’ faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore. Could there possibly be some fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?
Is this some kind of Russian Brother’s Grimm tale, set during the nuclear arms race, when testing to become “better than the Americans” was the excuse? We have horned devils, we have wolves (literally and symbolically), we have geese, we have bedridden grandmothers, spiritual healers and more. Although a very short work, it is not a shallow work, one that can be read on many levels and of course we have the existentialist angst:
After all, he had already lived through everything that is given to a man – the warmth of family, the happiness of love, the infatuation of hopes, the bitterness of disappointments, the music of the soul and the fear of oblivion.
Masterful in construction as our narrator creates alternative lives for Yerzhan, lyrical in the description of the steppe (so much so I want to visit), and revealing in the simple lifestyles being destroyed and full of angst, but again full of joy of the simple pleasures, such as the celebration of music or the joy in cleaning one’s hair. Another revelation by Peirene Press and a worthy inclusion on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist.