The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (review)

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (tr. by Andrew Bromfield) is the first novella in Peirene Press’s Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series, and having now read the full set, I think it’s my favourite of the three. (You can read my thoughts on the other two here: The Blue Room and Under the Tripoli Sky.)

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Kyrgyzstan-born Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man and now works for the BBC World Service in the UK. His democratic beliefs forced him to flee to the UK in 1994, and to this day his work remains banned in Uzbekistan. The Dead Lake, a novella first published in Russian in 2011, is set in the Kazakh Steppe region and comes with a foreboding preface:

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. (preface, Peirene Press)

This novella tells the story of Yerzhan, a twenty-seven-year-old man trapped inside the body of a twelve-year-old.  An unnamed narrator encounters Yerzhan while travelling across the Kazakh countryside by train. At first sight, he assumes Yerzhan to be a young boy selling yoghurt and playing the violin to amuse passengers during the journey. But when he hears the boy’s deep voice, our narrator is shocked to discover that Yerzhan is an adult. The men strike up a conversation and we rewind several years as Yerzhan reveals his backstory.

As a young boy, Yerzhan lives with his mother, uncles and grandparents in one of two houses in an isolated way station on the Kazakhstan railway. From an early age he displays a talent for music and learns to play the dombra and violin. School is a long donkey ride away, and the boy spends his days playing with Aisulu, the daughter of the neighbouring family, playing the violin and listening to fables.

Ismailov captures the stark beauty of the Kazakh landscape so effectively it could be another character in the book. The writing is lyrical and poetic with snatches of lyrics from folk songs and poetry threaded through Yerzhan’s tale.

Life is simple here in the Kazakh steppe, and Yerzhan’s childhood should be a happy one. However, as in many such stories, there is a dark shadow lying in the background. Every now and again, the families’ lives are disturbed by the sound of explosions from the nuclear test site, ‘an inescapable, terrible, abominable thing that came a rumbling and a trembling.’ In this scene, Yerzhan, his grandfather and uncle are travelling by train when they hear the ‘clangerous, forgotten sound’ of the Zone:

The train clattered along the frozen rails. The fierce cold of the steppe blew in through the wagon door, which stood slightly ajar. But suddenly the shadows in the wagon shifted abruptly, as if pushed aside by the huge hairy legs of the fly on Yerzhan’s nose. A din louder than its buzzing, worse than the rumble of the wagon and the empty metal bread boxes followed, penetrating the eardrums of the men and the boy. The wagon began to dance. The old men disappeared through the open door. The fly made the ground under Yerzhan’s feet spin. Then it dragged him into a rumbling darkness.

The Zone! That’s how Yerzhan remembered that day, when the wagons toppled off the track and lay in the steppe. (pgs. 28-9)

Yerzhan’s Uncle Shaken (who also happens to be Aisulu’s father) works at the atomic plant. A staunch supporter of the Soviet propaganda of the time, Shaken takes every opportunity to lecture Yerzhan’s family on the importance of developing a nuclear capability:

He preached to the others that it was more than just an atom bomb. It was our Soviet response to the arms race, without which we would all have been gone a long time ago. But the blasts were necessary for peaceful purpose too. In order to build communism! ‘It is our absolute duty not merely to catch up with, but to overtake the Americans! In case there’s a third world war!’ he concluded with his hallmark phrase. (pg. 47)

The pivotal moment in the Yerzhan’s life comes when Uncle Shaken takes the children on a visit to his place of work and the ‘Dead Lake.’ Despite a warning not to touch or drink the water from this lake, the young boy cannot resist its beauty. Having taken Aisulu’s hand for a moment, he lets go, strips down to his underclothes and immerses himself in the forbidden waters:

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 fairly-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water? (pg. 65)

The terrible consequences of his dip become apparent when Yerzhan’s body stops growing. By the time he reaches twelve, the other children start to outgrow him, and his stunted development becomes noticeable. Yerzhan’s family feed the boy liver, fish oil and vegetables. They visit a faith healer and resort to grotesque and painful physical methods in an effort to stretch the boy’s bones. All attempts prove fruitless, and Yerzhan is left feeling angry and fearful as he sees Aisulu slipping away from him:

The same fear that had always begun with a trembling in his knees and frozen as a heavy ache in his stomach seemed to have risen higher up now, right up to his throat – and got stuck there, preventing his body from growing. (pg. 71)

This is a story that will appeal to lovers of fables and folk tales, but it’s bleak and haunting one. As you’ll have guessed from the outset, there is no happy ending here. Like many other Peirene novellas, this one packs a punch – like an iron fist in a velvet glove. The narrator is left to reflect on the horror of it all, the lives marred by the terrible legacy of nuclear radiation:

What unpredictable and crooked experiment had I glanced and seen in him – this wunderkind Yerzhan, imprinted as a crumpled shadow alongside the grass, the trees and the birds in the concrete wall of the Zone, jutting out of the steppe? (pg. 120)

Claire (at Word by Word) Grant (at 1stReading), MarinaSofia (at findingtimetotime) and Stu (at Winstonsdad’s) have also reviewed this novella.

The Dead Lake is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy. Book 1/20 in my #TBR20.

48 thoughts on “The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (review)

  1. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I like the fact that you compared this to a folktale. Indeed it sounds like a modern day high technology dark fable. It sounds like an important story told in an unusual way.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, it reads like a folk tale or fable and the underlying story is so hard-hitting. It’s a powerful and unusual book; as you say, an important story when you consider the terrible legacy from these nuclear explosions.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s worth it, Helen. Even though the story itself is a bleak one, I much preferred it to Under the Tripoli Sky; there’s a stronger, more coherent thread running through The Dead Lake.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. It’s been an interesting exercise to read all three as I can see the coming-of-age theme in each one even though the context and culture vary across the series.

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    I’ve finally taken out a Peirene subscription but I think I may have to do a little retrospective buying with the coming-of-age series after reading your reviews, Jacqui

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I hope you enjoy your subscription, Susan. This year’s titles sound great, and I’ll be interested to see how each book looks at the ‘Chance Encounter’ theme. The three ‘coming-of-age’ novellas are all very different. The Blue Room is probably the strongest of the three (certainly from a technical perspective), but it’s a very unnerving read. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be The Dead Lake.

      Reply
  3. Guy Savage

    I was about to ask why he was trapped in the body of a 12 year old, but then the review answered my question. I was thinking it was one of those Hollywood things when a middle aged man wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees a young boy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I know what you mean. Sadly not – it’s more disturbing than one of those Hollywood devices. It’s tragic really when you consider the human cost of these nuclear explosions, how defenceless these people were…

      Reply
      1. Guy Savage

        I saw a documentary about Vietnam and the after effects of Agent Orange. One scene showed all these jars full of deformed fetuses. It showed how people drank tainted water. Very sad.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Agent Orange – gosh, yes that was terrible. I recall reading about it some years ago, how children were born with deformities or have suffered other health problems as a result of its use. Reading The Dead Lake also reminded me of the Chernobyl disaster and the effects on the incidence of certain types of cancer. The long-term impact is still being monitored…

          Reply
  4. 1streading

    Thanks for the mention. Though The Blue Room is my favourite of Peirene’s 2014 releases, I also loved this. It does have that eerie, haunting atmosphere of a folktale.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Grant. The Blue Room is the strongest of the three, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the next IFFP longlist. Looking back though, I just found it a rather unsettling read!

      Reply
  5. adevotedreader

    Thanks for an intriguing review, Jacqui. Yerzhan’s lack of growth sounds like it owes a debt to The Tin Drum! I’m interested in reading about the nuclear legacy given Maralinga here and the French testing in the wider Pacific.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Ah yes, I can see why you were reminded of Oskar from The Tin Drum! And I can see the parallels with Maralinga, too…another terrible legacy. Given what you’ve said here, I think you’d find The Dead Lake very interesting and moving.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wondered about that too, Stu, and I fear you might be right. It reminded me of the Chernobyl disaster in the mid-eighties and how the long-terms effects on the incidence of particular cancers are still being investigated. It’s terribly sad.

      All credit to Peirene Press for bringing this story to a wider audience. I think it’s my favourite from this year’s series.

      Reply
  6. Richard

    Sounds like a winner, Jacqui, and in addition to the folk tale feel you and others have commented on, I’m particularly intrigued by what you say about the landscape being almost another character in the novel. Now if only my TBR weren’t so out of control at the moment…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a powerful little book, Richard, quite different to anything else I’ve read in the last few months. There’s a bleak and ghostly feel to the wilderness of the Kazakh steppe which seems to mirror the poignancy of Yerzhan’s story.

      Ah, the ever-increasing TBR. I’m trying to tackle mine at the moment with the aim of reading twenty books from the pile before I can justify buying any more!

      Reply
  7. evastalker

    This sounds properly eerie, definitely something I need to check out. I’m interested in reading books that use folk tale feel by without veering into whimsy or fancy & instead exploiting the darkness in that way of storytelling (Kristof’s twin trilogy a good example).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think The Dead Lake would fit that bill, Eva. I was a little worried at first that the snippets from folks songs might push this towards whimsy but they worked within the context of the Yerzhan’s story. One of the things I really liked about this novella was the writing, the beauty in the bleakness. It’s a little difficult to explain, but I find it easier to read these hard-hitting stories if they’re written in a style I can engage with. I have the Kristof and really want to read it, but I’m a little worried that I might find it challenging to get into as the prose looks very spare, stripped to the bone…

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Perinea does have a good eye, as of course do you. It sounds more interesting than I expected, given I tend not to be a fan of coming of age tales.

    The reference to The Zone, being an area where people and things are distorted and mutated, must be a reference to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s classic Soviet SF novel Roadside Picnic, it’s just too close to be ignored. Have you read it? I don’t normally recommend SF to non-SF readers, but for that one I’d make an exception. There was a new translation in 2012, though I can’t speak to whether it’s good or not.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I was quite surprised by this one as it offers a very different perspective on the coming-of-age theme. Mind you, I guess that’s the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Peirene, and this is a very ‘Peirene’ book if you know what I mean.

      It’s funny you should mention Roadside Picnic as my immediate thought on reading about the Zone was Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (which I believe was adapted from the Strugatskys’ novel). It’s been a while since I saw Stalker, but I recall it as a weird and wonderful and elusive film (I should seek it out again). I’ll take a look at the book too. Actually, it’s good to know that you think it’s one for non-SF readers as well as hardcore SF fans as I ought to stretch myself by trying something along those lines. I have one or two dystopian novels (Zamyatin’s We and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) in the TBR, but your recommendations are always very welcome.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        Zamyatin’s We would have been one of those recommendations. There’s not many to be honest, though most of Stanislaw Lem’s stuff carries over pretty well (though while it’s the translations I’ve read, I’ve heard that many aren’t actually that accurate).

        Ice by Anna Kavan is interesting, there’s a review at mine, plus of course Ballard and Christopher Priest (or at least some of their work). I’ve an early Priest at mine which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend since he wrote better later, but it’s interesting and shows how SF can be about much more than spaceships and sprawling galactic empires (not that I have anything at all against spaceships and sprawling galactic empires).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, excellent! Another friend recommended ‘We’ as an interesting precursor to Orwell’s 1984 so I’m glad to hear it has your endorsement too. Lem’s Solaris is on one of my wishlists (once again, I’ve looked at it on account of the film, the Tarkovsky as opposed to the Soderbergh/Clooney remake).

          I loved Anna Kavan’s Ice – I picked it up following your review. Might reread it one day…I have another of hers somewhere, Guilty. I’d like to try Ballard, definitely.

          Picking up on another conversation, would you like my copy of Inherent Vice? It’s yours if you’d like to give it a try at some point.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lindsay, and I’m with you on both counts. Meike does seem to have a knack for picking interesting stories in different settings. I guess that one of the reasons I like the Peirene novellas as they often take me to unfamiliar places.

      My TBR needs some attention too, and I’ve adopted Eva Stalker’s #TBR20 idea to read twenty books I own before buying any more. (I don’t know if you’ve seen it on twitter?) I’m currently reading book 6/20 and enjoying the shift in focus from browsing/buying to reading.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Books, Books, Books: A Gallery of Pics From #TBR20 Readers | Eva Stalker

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  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I loved that this was a story narrated on a train ride, I found it visually interesting and kind of moody, all those things unspoken quietly seething beneath the surface. I think it would make a wonderful film, and in that context it could be told with few words. Great that stories like this are making it out into the open. Brilliant review Jacqui and love your choice of quotes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. Oh, I agree about the framing of the story, it’s just perfect for a film or television adaptation….all those vivid images of the Kazakh landscape too. This was my favourite from last year’s Peirene titles, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve got lined up for the year ahead.

      Reply
  12. A Little Blog of Books

    I’m shadowing the IFFP longlist and have just started reading this one today. I’m enjoying it more than I expected and the landscape is very evocative. The only other Peirene title I’ve read so far is The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke and I must read more!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear that you’re enjoying it so far. I’m with you on this, it’s a wonderful evocation of the Kazakh landscape. Ismailov seem to have a knack for capturing the stark beauty and rhythm of life in the region.

      Wishing you all the best with your IFFP shadowing. I participated last year and discovered some wonderful writers in the process: Javier Marias, Jon Kalman Stefansson, Andrei Makine, Yoko Ogawa…I could continue!

      Reply
  13. Scott W

    I’m obviously very late to your review, but I’ll echo Max by noting the similarities to Roadside Picnic and perhaps especially to the film made of it, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. That line you quote – “The train clattered along the frozen rails” – pretty much is the long stunning shot from Tarkovsky’s film as his characters first enter “The Zone.” I’d always assumed that the film implicitly referenced Chernobyl until I read the book and realized both book and film were before Chernobyl. It’s interesting – and perhaps inevitable – that someone would reference this material in a work about an actual nuclear waste zone. Anyway, I get the sense that this book is nodding to its precursors but heading off in a different direction. Oh, and yes, I’ll echo Max’s recommendation of Roadside Picnic, one of the few science fiction novels that has an appeal well beyond what gets science fiction fans excited.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s always nice to receive a comment on an old post. I think you’re right, The Dead Lake must be referencing Roadside Picnic/Stalker, but Ismailov’s book is rather different. I enjoyed it very much, but it’s not necessarily one I would try to persuade you to read! It’s a little like a folk tale or fable, beautifully written and very evocative, but the style might not be to everyone’s taste. The info in novel’s preface is quite shocking, and it’s frightening to imagine the fallout from all those nuclear explosions. I was reminded of Chernobyl, too.

      I’m glad to hear you recommend Roadside Picnic, though. Between you and Max, that’s another one for the TBR. Oh, and I must revisit Stalker as it’s been such a long time since I last saw that film! I went through a Tarkovsky phase many years ago, but it’s time for a refresher.

      Reply

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