The year’s theme for Peirene Press has been coming-of-age stories, beginning in February with Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake. Ismailov was forced into exile from Uzbekistan in 1994 and his works are still prohibited there. Although Peirene frequently bring writers into English for the first time, Ismailov is one of those rare occasions where some of his work has been previously translated. Certainly two other novels are available in print (The Railway and A Poet and Bin Laden), and a third as an e-book (The Underground). Andrew Broomfield, also responsible for A Poet and Bin Laden, has translated The Dead Lake from the Russian (Ismailov writes in both Uzbek and Russian).
Having now read all three of Peirene’s 2014 novellas, it is striking that all of them deal with the idea of coming-of-age in terms of relationships with the opposite sex, although all in different and surprising ways. In The Dead Lake that relationship is between Yerzhan and Aisulu who grow up together on the sparsely populated steppe. We hear Yerzhan’s story through the mediation of a narrator who comes across the young man on railway journey through Kazakhstan and is astounded at his virtuoso violin playing. The narrator first offends Yerzhan by mistaking him for a child – we discover later that Yerzhan stopped growing before he reached his teens – but soon befriends him and hears his life story throughout the rest of the journey.
Yerzham lives an isolated existence with his grandparents, his mother and his uncle (“The column for ‘Father’ in his birth certificate had remained blank”); in the only other house Aisulu lives with her Granny and parents. Yerzhan discovers he has a great talent for music, firstly by playing his grandfather’s dombra, and then later (when he is taken for lessons), the violin. If at first his talent seems a gift to be cherished, later you may be suspicious it is ultimately seen as pointless. The family live near ‘the Zone’, an area for nuclear testing, where Aisulu’s father works, a barren wasteland scattered with ruined buildings, one of which is nicknamed the goose:
“As they came closer, the ‘goose’ appeared more like a crane, an immense concrete block half-crumpled, as if it had melted and run on one side.”
Ismailov largely underplays the Zone to emphasise how matter-of-factly it is accepted as part of their life. The Dead Lake itself is to be found in the Zone, created by a bomb crater. Though Yerzhan is told not to drink or touch it, he
“…walked calmly into the forbidden water. For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiring and terrified twittering of Aisulu and then others, he walked out of the water, shook himself off as if nothing had happened…”
Whether it is this single immersion, or (more likely) the continual exposure to radiation that prevents Yerzhan growing any further, it has a profound effect on his life. His assumption that he would marry childhood sweetheart Aisulu is challenged when she begins to exceed him in height. This begins a devastating series of events that will affect all in his tiny community.
If The Dead Lake is a critique of life on the steppe, it criticises from both the past and the present. If it is the USSR’s desperation to “catch up with the Americans and then overtake them” that leads to Yerzhan’s poisoning, the novel suggests that neither modernity nor folklore has an answer to it. A visit to a local healer is ridiculed when her methods and instructions are repeated almost word for word later when his Granny has an entirely different complaint; however, a trip to a city hospital is no more successful. Similarly, at the moment he enters the lake, Yerzhan is influenced both by the myth of Gesar his Granny has told him and American singer / film star Dean Reed (who will later drown in a lake). These influences lead to further rash action on his part later in the novel.
The Dead Lake, though it does not always seem it, is on reflection a bleak novel that offers little in the way of hope. I kept returning to the scene when Aisulu adopts a fox cub – that night it escapes from the house and is torn to pieces by the family dog. Its mother calls plaintively in the distance in a novel that is filled with the lonely howling of animals.