The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov
Andrew Bromfield’s translation captures this haunting look at the lives affected by atomic testing on the Kazakh steppes.
English translations from the former Soviet republics are as scant as the countries of central Asia are rich in history and language, and staggeringly vast across the map; Kazakhstan alone is the size of Europe. The release of Hamid Ismailov’s hauntingly beautiful novella is doubly exciting. Firstly, this frightening fairytale is set in a place unknown to most – the Kazakh steppes near the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS), the largest in the former Soviet territories. Second, becauseThe Dead Lake comes to us from the author of The Railway. Ismailov’s sane vision of insane history in action relates the tragicomic meetings of mullahs and Bolsheviks, the clash between nomads and modernity that came with the “iron road” that traverses 20th-century Uzbekistan.
This book, though, is free of exuberant exoticism. It is short, stark, strange, and upsettingly real as great parables can be. It grabbed me by the throat on page two, when the travelling narrator encounters the yoghurt-selling, violin‑playing child prodigy Yerzhan; and finds, close up, that Yerzhan is not a child.
Born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway, Yerzhan grows up with the two families stationed there. In winter the children listen to “howling hungry wolves and jackals across the steppes”, and in summer they wait for passenger trains: “city people from unknown lands, golden-toothed Uzbeks, yellow-haired Russians and red-shirted Gypsies”. They ride horses to school, go fox-hunting with Grandad and spend nights by the fire listening to epic poems. Here is some of the best writing on living landscape you’ll come across; Andrew Bromfield’s translation captures the beat of galloping hooves and the chug of train wheels in the sentences.
Music is central to the story: when Yerzhan shows talent with the dombra, or folk fiddle, he is taken on horseback to violinist Petko who, by some private shipwreck, has washed up at a mobile construction unit for itinerant workers, far from his native Bulgaria. Petko becomes a mentor and father to Yerzhan, while Yerzhan and his playmate Aisulu mature towards sexual love. But no one is safe in the shadow of the zone and its atomic activity, which arrives “as a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado”. The turning point comes with a school trip to the Dead City, where Aisulu’s father works in the “experimental reactor”. In a desperately affecting scene, he takes the kids to the Dead Lake, “a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb … in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water”. Yerzhan ignores the warnings and wades in.
Life goes on “as if nothing had happened”, and the internal logic of the narrative allows for an allegorical understanding of why Yerzhan stops growing. The torment of a man trapped in a boy’s body is mirrored by the anomaly of Aisulu, who grows unnaturally tall, “like the wild grass after the blasts”. Ismailov shows his gift for character and luminous prose as everyone catches up with their nuclear destiny. “Does anything make any sense?” the 27-year-old Yerzhan addresses the narrator, “and his question seemed to be addressed not to me, but to this train galloping across the steppe, to this blazing steppe spread out across the earth, to this earth, adrift between light and darkness, to this darkness …”
A cousin to Oskar of The Tin Drum, Yerzhan embodies lives and landscapes blighted but undefeated by the cold war. In the era of atomic tests between 1945 and 1989, 200,000 Kazakh civilians were exposed to lethal radiation, and Soviet medicine used them as guinea pigs. Radiation sickness continues to devastate people in the Semipalatinsk area to this day. Ismailov’s ability to show how lives seemingly on the periphery are at the heart of the human experience – and to leave us enraged and bewitched – confirms him as a writer of immense poetic power.