The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, tr. Andrew Bromfield

Dead Lake 2An astonishing tale tinged with sadness, as recounted by the protagonist Yerzhan to a stranger on a train journey across the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, that in part continues to be imagined by the listener as from time to time, the young narrator sleeps.

The story begins when the boy enters the carriage playing Brahms on his violin in a manner that causes everyone to stop and look at him, not believing it possible that a boy who looks about ten to twelve-years-old could play to such perfection and with such awe-inspiring panache.

“Then, just as he had the entire carriage gaping after him open-mouthed, he broke off in mid-note. He slung the violin back over his shoulder like a rifle.

‘Wholesome local beverage – entirely organic!’ he exclaimed in a thick, adult voice. He swung a canvas sack down off his other shoulder and pulled out an immense plastic bottle of a yoghurt drink, either ayran or kumis. I approached him, without even knowing why.”

train trackYerzhan grows up at a remote railway siding in a part of the country where atomic weapons are tested. Two families live near each other, their lives more intertwined than appears on the surface.

Yerzhan and the neighbour’s daughter Aisulu travel many miles by donkey to go to school and many more miles to see the strange but talented bachelor, Petko, a Bulgarian violin teacher.

Every so often the ground shakes, another sun rises and everything is still. Then there is the Zone, that area where it is so silent, his ears ring.

“And the thing that loomed over him like a visceral fear could happen in the middle of the sweltering summer, when sheep suddenly started bleating as if they were under the knife and went dashing in all directions, cows dug their horns into the ground and the donkey squealed and rolled around in the dust…

And a slight rumble would run through the ground, Yerzhan’s legs would start trembling, and then his whole body, and the fear would rise up from his shaking knees to his stomach and freeze there in a heavy ache, until the sky cracked over his head and shattered into pieces, crushing him completely, reducing him to dust, to sand, to scraps of grass and wool. And the black whirlwind hurtled past above him with a wild howl.”

A young boy playing the dombra

A boy plays the dombra

His friend Aisulu’s Granny tells him a story of his conception and birth, intertwined with local legend; not knowing who his father is, he often replays the story in his mind, trying to understand it, and who he is.

“Granny Ulbarsyn’s story  wasn’t the only thing that had sunk deep into Yerzhan’s heart.  Grandad’s dombra playing stayed with him too. When no one was looking the boy took the instrument down from its nail high up on the wall. And while his grandfather tapped with the hammer on railway carriages, Yerzhan strummed the dombra secretly, imitating the old man’s knitted brows and hoarse voice. It didn’t take long before he picked out a few familiar melodies and then, with the keen eye he used to keep watch on Uncle Kapek’s behaviour, he followed and memorised  his granddad’s finger movements.”

Dead LakeYerzhan learns the dombra and violin and is bright, but the real light in his life is Aisulu, a light that gradually fades upon his reaching the age of 12, when he walks into the forbidden, radioactive Dead Lake to impress her and from that day on stops growing, destined to watch her pass him by.

“Other people noticed it too and wanted to help. Granny Ulbarsyn fed him with the livers of new born spring lambs, Grandad Daulet ordered carrots from the city through his  friend Tolegen,  and Uncle Shaken brought disgusting fish oil back from his shift. But that only produced a foul-smelling burp! Yerzhan ate it all. But he had stopped growing.”

Another of Peirene Press’s excellent novella’s, this really is an afternoon read, but so rich in the telling, it is a pleasure to go back and reread passages with the familiarity of having read the story. It is a tale tinged with  inevitable sadness as people live with the invisible terrors that are an environmental legacy of the Cold War.

If you want to read more contemporary European literature outside the English language, you can do no better than take out a fabulous subscription with Peirene Press. Three novellas a year and the kind you’ll rarely find in most bookshops.

Note: The author Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan and moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. He writes in both Russian and Uzbek and his novels have been translated into many European languages. Sadly his work is banned in Uzbekistan today and he has had to flee the country due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.