The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

Layout 1Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield. Peirene Press, 2014. Originally published 2011. 128 pgs. Library copy.

In a remote part of Kazakhstan, Soviet scientists and military personnel test atomic weapons as they race to catch up to the Americans. A young boy named Yerzhan lives near the test site with his mute mother, grandparents, and the daughter of their only neighbors. His grandfather discovers he is a child prodigy with instruments, including the violin, and pushes Yerzhan to achieve greatness.

Decades later, a man meets a talented musician playing the violin in a train station and mistakes the musician for a child. The musician becomes enraged asserting that he is, in fact, a man not a boy. Stunned, the travel insists on learning more about Yerzhan’s story, opening the window for the reader into Yerzhan’s past and the legacy of environmental destruction on the former Soviet bloc countries.

The title of Ismailov’s novella comes from the radioactive lake Yerzhan dives into in an attempt to show off to the neighbor’s daughter, Aisulu, and his other classmates. The lake has an ethereal quality to it; Yerzhan can’t believe something so beautiful could really be damaging to him.

“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?”

He comes to realize, though, that the “dead lake” holds a monster rather than a fairy-tale. His body ceases to grow, and his anguish mounts as Aisulu begins to grow into a beautiful young woman while he continues to resemble a child. That anguish becomes rage as he watches others express an interest in Aisulu and, later, the anguish morphs into a rejection of the life he had or planned to have on the Kazakh steppe.

The environmental destruction documented in this novel is grand in scale — a large, radioactive lake in the middle of the steppe that renders an young boy stunted — and yet it seems to slowly creep into the consciousness of Yerzhan and his family. They believe so strongly in catching up with the Americans that they ignore the strange clouds that arise over the steppe. They believe so strongly in their heritage and history in this remote section of Kazakhstan that they take Yerzhan to local healers in an attempt to save him.

“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 multicoloured 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…”

The steppe is beautiful described in Ismailov’s novella; everything is beautifully described in Ismailov’s novella. The story’s themes and the magical realism employed to explore them are enthralling. It’s one of those rare works in translation where the lyrical nature of the original text is preserved, and I would consider it to be the best of all the Peirene Press publications I have read.

‘The Dead Lake’ was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015.

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