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