The Dead Lake
The Dead Lake
by Hamid Ismailov,
tr. Andrew Bromfield
by Peirene Press
The Dead Lake is a short book tackling a very tough and grim issue. But I actually found it very enjoyable.
This short novel is actually a story within a story: on a train in Kazakhstan, the narrator reports meeting Yerzhan, who plays the violin to attract people’s attention to eventually sell them a local organic drink. He seems to be 10-12 year old but claims he is actually 27. Then the narrator learns his story and what happened to the boy.
One day, he visited a nuclear “zone” with his school. It was strictly forbidden to touch the water of the beautiful lake on the premises. But to impress his girl friend Aisulu, Yerzhan walked in. Only little by little would he discover the consequences on his body: the deadly water put a stop to his development… whereas his friend became a beautiful girl.
Almost presented like a Russian folk tale –there are actually some inserted in the narrative, this beautiful little book full of lyricism deals with the theme of the consequence of atomic power and the hundreds of nuclear tests launched by the Russians in Kazakhstan during the Cold War, of course in populated areas.
There’s the beauty of the land, and also of music, as Yerzhan is a violin prodigy. A beautiful passage actually merges both themes together at one point, with poles and wire going fast seen from the train as musical scores with birds on them like notes.
When he eventually started playing the violin, the sound was so pure that Yerzhan instantly realized the meaning of Perko’s first comment: even a blind man would have seen the blue sky, the dance of the pure air, the clear sunlight, the snow-white clouds, the joyful birds.
And all this on the background of the Cold War, the talks about threats from the US, the competition between both countries, and the terror at each nuclear explosion over the land. The following sentence is used as a leitmotiv:
“…doing absolutely everything possible not only to catch up with but also to overtake American”.
As for the writing style, the last part also mixes brilliantly reality with several nightmares, tales, and dreams.
VERDICT: Dramatic short novel haunting in its juxtaposition of beauty and sadness.
So far (follow its evolution after each of my IFFP reviews) my list in order of likes would then go like that:
- The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
- The Dead Lake, by Hamid Ismailov
- By Night the Mountain Burns, by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel
- The Last Lover, by Can Xue
To know more about the IFFP and the IFFP Shadow Panel, please see the other posts in this category
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
HAVE YOU READ ANY OTHER GOOD RECENT BOOK
TRANSLATED FROM THE RUSSIAN?
This was one of my favourites last year: short but haunting and lyrical. From a country about which I know so little.
i hope it makes the IFFP shortlist. Incidentally just a couple of weeks ago I went to a presentation on Kazakhstan in my library, by a friend of mine who used to live there
I loved this novel, almost as much as The End of Days (which are my two favorite for the IFFP). It made me think about how the choices made as a child, or at least quite young, effect us the rest of our days. I also loved reading about the steppe. For some reason, I am quite addicted to Russian literature. To all things Russian. Oh, and Japanese. Oh, and French. Oh, and Italian. 😉
I liked it a lot too, and I share the same addiction to Russian-Japanese-French literature, but now my top is The Ravens!
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