A nuclear folktale: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

lakeAt the beginning of The Dead Lake, by Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov, an unnamed traveller encounters Yerzhan, a 27 year-old man seemingly confined to the body of a young boy, playing violin on the platform of a railway station. Fascinated by this odd character, he invites him to join him on his  train journey where Yerzhan proceeds to share his account of growing up in a two-family railway “stop” on the steppes of Kazakhstan during the years of the Cold War. The landscape of his homeland, vast and underpopulated, is seen to be the ideal testing ground for the Soviet side of the nuclear arms race. The tremors and explosions that rock the “Zone” become a terrifying feature of daily life for the nearby residents.The resulting radiation will take a much more devastating toll.

Early on Yerzhan finds respite in music. At the age of three, he shows exceptional musical aptitude for playing his granddad’s dombra, graduating quickly to the violin. For years music consumes him. A Hungarian worker at the Mobile Construction Unit is found to tutor the young musical prodigy. He absorbs the music, quickly learning to read and play many classical masterpieces.

“He dreamt these phrases, together with the sounds of the violin in the different-coloured, rounded notes. His dreams had never been so jolly before. The notes walked about like little men. This one was fat and pompous, with a huge pot belly, while these minced along on skinny legs.”

reedHe also finds a personal hero in the handsome Dean Reed, the American born pop and rock singer who became a celebrity behind the Iron Curtain, and imagines himself growing in the image of his mentor and securing the heart of his beloved Aisulu. But when he suddenly stops growing at the age of 12, his intended continues to grow, eventually reaching an unusual height for a woman. His heartache, which he seeks to answer in the songs, magic, and legends of his people becomes an allegory for the very real and tragic legacy that atomic fallout has left on the land and people of this remote part of the world.

This moving novella is part of Peirene Press’ Coming of Age series. Ismailov breathes life into the steppes, from the snow dusted barren slopes, to the ubiquitous worms, lice, and flies. The silence of the landscapes is contrasted with the violence of the test flights and explosions. The musical tones of violin meet traditional folksongs. Andrew Bromfield’s sensitive translation form the Russian is especially effective in maintaining the lyrical quality of the songs that are woven into the tale. The result is a simple, but thought-provoking read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: It is good to see small, subscription supported presses like Peirene receiving the attention that these nominations bring to the wonderful stories that deserve to reach a wider audience.