- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: Peirene Press Ltd (February 27, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1908670142
- ISBN-13: 978-1908670144
- Product Dimensions: 4.9 x 0.4 x 7.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,261,003 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Dead Lake Paperback – February 27, 2014
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'A haunting and resonant fable.' Boyd Tonkin, INDEPENDENT ------ 'A tantalising mixture of magical and grim realism ... a powerful study of alienation and environmental catastrophe.' David Mills, SUNDAY TIMES ------ 'A poetic masterpiece, a novella of shocking legacies, alien beauty and blistering emotional intensity.' Pam Norfolk, LANCASHIRE EVENING POST ------ 'A writer of immense poetic power.' Kapka Kassabova, GUARDIAN ------ 'A novella which draws on myth, fairy tale, poetry and traditional story-telling, it stirs them together to create an unusual parable of a modern arms race cruelly impacting on a traditional way of life.' Elizabeth Buchan, DAILY MAIL ------ 'This superb novella ... reads like a modern fairy-tale, full of a surreal yet mundane horror.' Lesley McDowell, INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY ------ 'Central Asian storytelling at its best.' Marion James, TODAY'S ZAMAN
About the Author
Born in 1954 in Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. He writes both in Russian and Uzbek and his novels and poetry have been translated into many European languages, including German, French and Spanish. In 1994 he was forced to flee to the UK because of his 'unacceptable democratic tendencies'. He now works for the BBC World Service. The Railway was his first novel to be published in English in 2006, followed by A Poet and Bin-Laden in 2012. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan today.
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Yerzhan had been born in a tiny halt on a railway line called Kara-Shagan, in North-Eastern Kazakhstan, near Semipalatinsk, where the Soviets carried out nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989. Kara-Shagan consisted of just two families: one headed by his Yerzhan’s grandfather Daulat, whose job was to man the points on the railway line; the other by Shaken, who worked as a watchman in the “Zone”, which was surrounded by barbed wire and inside which the scenery was a nightmarish landscape of craters, crippled buildings, trees, and animals.
We learn about their customs, their way of life, the legends they tell, the songs they sing to the accompaniment of a lute-like instrument called a dombra. We first meet Yerzhan as a three-year old musical child prodigy, first on his grandfather’s dombra, and then on a violin which Shaken acquired for him. Yerzhan’s uncle Kepek took him to a Bulgarian violinist who lived not too far away to give the boy violin lessons. But Daulat wanted him to become an expert on the traditional dombra and to learn the songs that were sung to it. The grandfather in turn set out with the boy for Semey (Semipalatinsk), where a dombra master bard lived. They never made it to Semey, because, as they approached it, a huge test explosion blew the train they were travelling off its rails: they had travelled too near the “Zone”. Such explosions happened from time to time, and the locals were accustomed to the ground shaking and to them then staying indoors for several days and even to their urine turning red for a time. Yet Shaken believes that these tests are necessary in order to catch up with and indeed overtake the Americans, though Daulat did not buy this propaganda line and hated what the tests had done to the steppe. Yerzhan’s nightmares were of a third World War, and the fear of the next explosion was always at the back of his mind.
Yerzhan became a brilliant violinist. When he was about nine years old, Shaken took him to the place where he worked inside the Zone and showed him a beautiful lake which had been formed after an explosion, and warned him not to touch it or drink its waters. But Yerzhan disobeyed him, entered the lake and splashed about in it. And when he was twelve years old, to his immense distress, he stopped growing. Most painful of all was that Shaken’s daughter Aisulu, with whom he had had the closest of friendships from childhood onwards and whom he had intended in due course to marry, grew out of his reach. As the years passed, he became increasingly bitter and resentful of normal people. At the age of twenty-seven, he still looked like a twelve-year-old.
In its last quarter, the book takes off into a kind of surrealism. Yerzhan has not finished his story when night came, and he fell asleep on his bunk. But the narrator cannot sleep, and, in his imagination, he fills in what Yerzhan might have done, what happened to him and the other members of the two families, what role was played by more explosions, by folk tales and folk superstitions. As the day breaks, Yerzhan wakes up and the narrator is jerked back into reality. But is it reality? I am not sure.
There are elements of magic realism in the novel, but we left in no doubt about the terrible impact of nuclear tests on the adjacent neighbourhoods.
In a tiny hamlet (just two households), the boy had a happy enough childhood- he describes hunting, the rural Kazakh lifestyle, his lovely playmate, Aisulu, and his early musical aptitude. But not far off is 'the Zone', where nuclear experiments are carried out regularly and without warning, and where - on a school trip - the boy sees 'the Dead Lake':
"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 fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?"
Interesting, some good descriptions of a distant part of the world, but didn't massively engage with the writing.