Book review – The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

The Dead Lake coverI confess to being a huge fan of Peirene Press, the little publishing house hellbent on introducing English readers to the classics of distant parts of the globe. Hence the fact you’ll see so many reviews of their titles on By translating works of other countries into English for the first time, they’re opening up a whole world of literary wonder to me, and other voracious readers.

I was excited to see The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov among this year’s offerings. Translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield, this small book contains a grand tale with a tone reminiscent of Anton Chekov or Mikhail Bulgakov, but with a far more modern message. It unfolds over a single train journey, yet encapsulates a life. As with many such works, it takes the form of a story being told by one character to another, drawing us up to the surface occasionally to remind us of the shifting landscape beyond the train windows, and the tale’s teller, a 27-year-old man with an extraordinary musical talent and the uncanny appearance of a ten-year-old boy.
We learn that Yerzhan grew up in a remote but beautiful part of Kazakhstan with his grandparents, uncles and aunts, and his mother who has not spoken since the day he was conceived. When he is three years old, he discovers a love, and talent for, playing the dombra, a string instrument similar to a violin, and “imbibed the centuries-old wisdom of the Kazakh, preserved in song, just as the steppe earth soaks up the rains of spring, transforming it into green tamarisk and feather grass, into scarlet poppies and tulips.”

It’s this vividly written throughout, so that you’ll feel you know the landscape just as well as the boy.

In the area where they live, wolves, foxes and venomous spiders roam the desert, but far more perilous than these are the frequent nuclear tests that to the Yerzhan represent “that inescapable, terrible abominable thing that came as a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado from the Zone.”

It’s a terrifying threat to live under, worse than any bogey man, and the novel is prefaced with a daunting missive: “Between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out.”

Publisher Meike Ziervogel describes the book as being “like a Grimm’s fairy tale”, and it certainly has that air about it, with Yerzhan’s imposing skill with the violin interspersed with his growing adoration for the neighbour’s daughter Aisulu, with the dread of the next explosion and the peril of the landscape of the steppes always biting at their heels.

Even the music teacher Peko is a threat, rumoured to be a paedophile by the uncle who recommends him.

The biggest danger, however, is the silent one – hidden behind seemingly innocent “bottle-green, glassy surface” of the Dead Lake, and it is here that the tale takes on its fairytale feel most truly as Yerzhan’s Uncle Saken warns the boy and his classmates not to touch the waters. Yerzhan, in a moment’s bravado, wades in, splashes about, and only much later realises the consequences of his actions. His classmates continue to grow, but he is frozen – stuck in the frame of a boy who will never grow up.

Now, where have I heard that before?

As though to rub salt into the radioactive wounds, his beloved Aisulu instead grows uncommonly tall “like the wild grass after the blasts”.

This is an elegant translation of a beautiful book that captures the darknesses of the cold war era and its very human consequences, with a doomed love affair at its heart.

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov is published by Peirene Press and is available to buy from Amazon.

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