Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is the first in the Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series. It was first published in Russia in 2011, and as with all of the Peirene titles, this is its first translation into English. Andrew Bromfield has done a marvellous job in this respect, and it goes without saying that the book itself is beautiful.
The author’s own life is worth mentioning in this review. Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, and moved to Uzbekistan when he was a young man. In 1994, he was forced to move to the United Kingdom due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. Whilst his work has been translated into many European languages – Spanish, French and German among them – it is still banned in Uzbekistan to this day.
The Dead Lake, says its blurb, is ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’. The novella has received high praise indeed; the Literary Review says that the author ‘has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground’. Meike Ziervogel, the owner of Peirene Press, likens the novella to a Grimm’s fairytale due to the way in which the story ‘transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality’.
Its premise is absolutely stunning, and is at once both clever and creative: “Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan where atomic weapons are tested. As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake. The radioactive water changes Yerzhan. He will never grow into a man.”
The Dead Lake begins with a note from the narrator, which denotes the moment at which he met our protagonist, Yerzhan, upon a train. He tells his tale to the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, and who punctuates it with his own feedback, recollections and imagined ending: ‘The way Yerzhan told me about his life was like this road of ours, without any discernible bends or backtracking’.
The story then centres upon Yerzhan himself, beginning with his uncertain birth: ‘Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway… The column for “Father” in his birth certificate had remained blank, except for a thick stroke of the pen’. His mother attests that his conception came as a surprise after she, ‘more dead than alive’, made her way into the deserted steppe to follow her silk scarf after it had blown away. Here, she states that she came face to face with ‘a creature who looked like an alien from another planet, wearing a spacesuit’. Since a cruel beating from her own father which was sustained after her pregnancy began to show, she has not spoken a single word.
Only two families live in the small way station named Kara-Shagan, and the sense of place and the desolation which Ismailov creates from the outset is strong. The use of local words, folktales and songs adds to this too, and all of the aforementioned elements help to shape both the culture of the characters and their situation in an underpopulated part of their country. The setting is presented as a character in itself at times, and this is a wonderful tool with which to demonstrate its vital importance to those who live within it.
As with all of Peirene’s titles, The Dead Lake is filled to the brim with intrigue from the very beginning. Yerzhan has been well crafted, and his childish delight in particular has been well translated to the page. When hearing his violin being played by a Bulgarian maestro of sorts, Ismailov describes the way in which: ‘the sound was so pure… even a blind man would have seen the blue sky, the dance of the pure air, the clear sunlight, the snow white clouds, the joyful birds’.
On a far darker note, the overriding fear of atomic bombs and the looming of a third world war gives the story an almost apocalyptic feel: ‘We are travellers, and the sky above us is full of enemy planes’. The Dead Lake is quite unlike anything which I have read to date. Ismailov presents a most interesting glimpse into a culture which is entirely different to ours. The novella is absorbing, and the entirety is so powerful, particularly with regard to its ending.