Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Dead Lake - Hamid Ismailov

It's a while since I've read a Peirenne book but I have a small pile of them and the possibility of getting to hear Meike Ziervogel speak at The Leicester Book Festival (if I can arrange the evening off from work. I had better be able to arrange the evening off work. Pity any poor customer who asks me a question if I can't arrange the evening off work...) so I'm motivated to read them in a timely fashion. There are likely all sorts of bookish things happening in Leicester that I'm unaware of, but there aren't many that I am aware of - the Leicester Book Festival is being organised from a (very good) small independent bookshop in the village of Kibworth, well outside of the city. When the odd chance does arise to do something bookish locally (other than read) I don't want to miss out.

'The Dead Lake' is described as a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War which gave me a certain expectation of what I'd find in it but it was nowhere near as bleak as I expected. I've been googling images of the Kazakh steppe but no thumbnail image on a laptop is going to convey the scale of place that Ismailov describes - day 4 of a train journey through unchanging scenery, that's all but unimaginable to someone who's never been anywhere it's seriously possible to get lost in, the only thing I can think of to give it context is the sea. Anything could happen in a place that big.

Between 1949 and 1989 a total of 468 nuclear explosions took place at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Sites both in the atmosphere and underground. It was a populated area even if the population was sparse, that activity has left a lasting legacy. Yerzhan is born in the way station of Kara-Shagan, a settlement of two house, his father is a mystery, his mother hasn't spoken since he was born. The two households are intimately linked with a child in each - Aisulu is the girl next door. This little island of humanity in the middle of the steppe provides the setting for a happy childhood for Yerzhan and Aisulu. Yerzhan is a musical prodigy secure in his world and his growing love for Aisulu, everything would be perfect if it wasn't for the forbidden 'zone' and the explosions that rock it with blinding lights and rushing winds.

Ismailov (translated by Andrew Bromfield) brings the Steppe vividly to life, icy winters when wolves are a real danger, scorching summers, swathes of wild flowers and all the small landmarks that allow the initiated to navigate this vast landscape - including deserted towns and nuclear testing facilities. When a bomb is detonated the families retreat indoors for a few days before returning to life as normal, at school the children hide beneath their desks, Yerzhan is blasĂ© about the explosions, but still lurking just under the surface there is a palpable fear of some half understood secret from the adult world.

In the end it seems that Yerzhan isn't destined to grow up, he remains trapped in a child's body as Aisulu continues to grow. All of this is explained to a chance met stranger on a train by a Yerzhan who is apparently 27 though he still looks 12. In the second part of the book the stranger try's to imagine the rest of Yerzhan's story as he sleeps, he also speculates as to whether it's all some sort of elaborate con. I think the reader has the choice of reading it all as a fairy tale or more literally as they wish. For myself I chose to read it quite literally, I was so caught up in the scenes Ismailov (and Bromfield) kept spreading before me that I paid scant attention to the metaphors beneath the images, but it's a short book and I can read it again when I want to untangle further meaning from it.

It's a book that begs discussion, I would love to know what others have made of it and found in it so will be searching avidly for other bloggers and reviewers opinions. Meanwhile it's also a reminder of what happens on the edges of our consciousness and civilisation in the places that are easy to forget about and ignore, and also a book that's well worth reading, even if only once.   

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