For anyone who has never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by this wilderness on all sides. But those who have lived here since time out of mind know how rich and variable the steppe is. How multicoloured the sky above. How fluid the air all around. How varied the plants. How innumerable the animals in it and above it. A dust storm can spring up out of nowhere. A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling round the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine. The entire, imponderable weight of that immense, heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land…
As he grew, Yerzhan noticed all the subtle shades and gradations of the road they followed to Petko’s music lessons. And that road seemed like music to him: it was just as fluent, the sounds were just as varied. The notes of the wind swayed on the little tamarisk and saltwort shrubs. Shrews and ground squirrels sang the second and third voices.
At home, Grandad’s severe, wrinkled face seemed to the boy like the Bach violin concerto that he was learning to play. Shaken’s tedious cheerfulness was like Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese March, which they had decided not to bother learning at all. Kepek’s dumb behaviour was like Gavinies’s endless etudes. And his Aisulu’s pink-cheeked little face was Vivaldi’s Winter, which the Bulgarian Petko played with ecstatic gusto during the late Kazakh summer.
And only the women, including the city bride Baichichek, did Yerzhan still associate with the monotonous sounds of the old-fashioned dombra.
How I loved this novel. It promised to be a “two-hour book devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film”. But, it took me more than two hours to read The Dead Lake because I wanted to carefully absorb every word.
This novel is the story of a twenty-five year old man who looks like he is twelve. He is a masterful violinist, something which seems quite incongruous due to growing up at a way station on the steppe. How can such an isolated spot allow for such a skill? This man-child, Yerzhan, tells us his story on the train travelling across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan.
It is a story involving his whole world: two families, two shacks, two grandmothers, a grandfather, an uncle, his mother. Their lives are simple and secluded, yet interwoven in ways that cannot be separated. It must be a miracle, that three-year old Yerzhan picks up his grandfathers dombra and plays with such skill that he soon begins lessons with a Bulgarian violinist. He is a wunderkind.
But, being such a talented child does not prevent him from being defiantly brave and in so doing change the entire course of his life. For he lives near the Zone, a fenced in area where atomic weapons are tested, which is where he is introduced to the Dead Lake.
Towards evening Uncle Shaken took the children to the Dead Lake. ‘Don’t drink the water and do not touch it,’ he told them. 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, reflecing 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 possible be some fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?
The Dead Lake brings into sharp focus how the decisions we make when young affect us all of our lives. It is a terribly piercing and poignant book, from Peirene Press’ coming of age series. Just like The Mussel Feast which I read last year, it tells far more than simply a story.
Author: Born in 1954 in Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. he writes in both 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 fell to the UK because of his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. He now works for the BBC World Service. His first novel to be published in English. The Railway, appeared in 2006, followed by A Poet and Bin-Laden in 2012. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan today.
Translator: Andrew Bromfield’s career of more than twenty years as a translator of Russian literature had its beginnings in Moscow during the perestroika period. In 1991 he was a founding editor of the journal Glas: New Russian Writing. He has translated works by Boris Akunin, Vladimir Voinovich and Irina Denezhkina, among other writers.