The Dead Lake (Hamid Ismailov)
What an intensely strange book. This is a totally nuts, modern-day fairy tale set in rural Kazakhstan where atomic bombs are frequently set off for Soviet tests. This is a brutal, brutal world, where donkeys choke on the “foamy mush” of chewy cabbage stalks, pet baby fox cubs are mauled to death and your grandmother will scratch your anus, itching with little squirming worms, before hitting you across the face with the fingers she just used. In this world we meet Yerzhan, a violin prodigy obsessed with American singer/actor/communist Dean Reed (whom I’d never heard of before reading this book). One day in order to impress a girl he is in love with, he wades into the radioactive dead lake of the title. For the rest of the book he is stuck in the body of a 12-year-old boy, even as everyone else around him grows older–a modern day atomic Peter Pan. This is how the 1st-person narrator of our story meets him (yes, the book is a layered narrative, Heart of Darkness-style): in a train station selling yogurt, claiming to be a twenty-seven year old man even though he still only looks twelve.
I enjoyed reading this book very much even though it didn’t change my life. I felt immersed and intrigued while reading and didn’t want to put it down. For me, it was a fascinating entry into a world that I know absolutely nothing about, a world where dombras are played, trains rattle by, wind whistles across the steppe, horses and camels are ridden everywhere, grandmothers insist on visiting local healers to cure their rheumatism and wordless women work all day in the background preparing dishes that require vast quantities of sour milk. There’s a clear theme of modernity vs. tradition throughout the book, via the characters of the grandparents and their love of epic poetry vs. the uncles and their obsession with “catching up with the Americans.” What I liked most about this book is the way it invokes (to quote from it directly) “the fear that something could happen at any moment.” Violence and danger can happen at any instance in this world, ranging from wolves, jackals and venomous spiders chasing you across the steppe, to the music teacher who is rumored to be a pedophile, to the effects of radiation sickness. I really appreciate how this book focuses on people who are typically seen as living on the margins, outside of modern society. People like Yerzhan and his family–the so-called periphery, despite consisting of vast populations–are usually ignored in literature and the international media. They don’t deserve to be.
What is also good about this book is that it is so short–more of a novella (I believe that is how it’s been marketed). The prose is easy to read and straightforward, no murky lyricism here, yet still possess a strong poetic beauty. “That was him,” Yerzhan thinks at one point about himself,“a straw broken off short, hollow on the inside, with his whistling soul driven into a thin, fragile little body.” I recommend this book if you want a quick, fast read that will immerse you in a fascinating, eerie world that warrants more attention. It highlights a society and culture that deserves more than just cutesy references to the Borat movie.