Hamid Ismailov is a Kyrgyz born author who moved to Uzbekistan at a young age. In 1994 he was forced to move to the U.K due to “unacceptable democratic tendencies”. His novel The Dead Lake, set in the Kazakhstan steppes, is a magical realist fable in the vein of Salman Rushdie and Gunter Grass.
After World War II, between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union used Kazakhstan as a testing ground for it’s atomic bomb program where as many as 500 underground and atmospheric tests were conducted, despite being close to a region where many people lived. According to the book’s preface, these devices exceeded by a factor of 2,500 the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
The time the novel is set is in the present. The unnamed narrator is riding a train through the Kazakh steppes - a long, monotonous trip which seems endless. The destination is not clear but along the way many Kazakh and gypsy women board the train and try to sell their wares to the passengers. At some point along the way, a young boy - Yerzhan - boards the train and begins husking by playing his violin for the passengers. The narrator is wildly impressed with this young boy who played with such virtuosity and he begins to converse with him. The boy, however, is not a boy, but a 27 year old man and proudly proclaims him as such. The narrator doesn’t believe him of course, and the boy belligerently shows his passport to prove it. Sure enough, according to the official document, Yerzhan is indeed 27 years old. Intrigued, the narrator continues to talk to Yerzhan and Yerzhan enters his cabin, sits down and begins to tell his story.
The majority of the narrative from this point forward is Yerzhan’s story (with occasional interludes by the narrator in the present day). Yerzhan is 12 years old when the story begins and he tells of his childhood in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan, where two families live side by side the railway tracks. In this remote town, Yerzhan’s uncle Shaken is a brakeman for the nearby station. We learn of his upbringing, culture, his fondness for music, as well as his relatives obsession with “catching up to and exceeding the Americans” in all aspects of life. His uncle discovers the boy’s natural talent for music and Yerzhan begins taking violin lessons from a Bulgarian loner who somehow - for reasons unknown - wound up living in this remote part of Kazakhstan.
The one light in Yerzhan’s life is Aisulu, a young girl he is extremely fond of. Aisulu and Yerzhan spend a lot of time together and Aisulu often accompanies him on their outings as well as attends the same school as him. On one of these outings, they come upon an abandoned town, destroyed by the nuclear testing (which occur throughout the book as these two families try to live their simple lives). In this abandoned, radiated town, they come upon a contaminated lake. Yerzhan, wanting to impress Aisulu, jumps into the lake and begins splashing around to impress her. From that moment on, Yerzhan stops growing. As time passes, everyone else around him ages and grows while he remains a 12 year old boy.
Believing that he is cursed, his grandfather and grandmother begin a host of old Kazakh folk remedies in order to remove the curse and help him grow. Nothing works, and as his oldest relatives begin to pass away, much to his horror, his beloved Aisulu begins to grow into a beautiful woman. There comes a point where the line between what actually happened and what the narrator imagines what happened becomes blurred. While Yerzhan sleeps in the narrator’s cabin, the narrator tries to put the pieces together in order to finish this incomplete story. How much is fantasy and how much is reality isn’t clear. However, despite the sad, depressing tale, there is a sort of hopeful ending - and a surprise one as well. A lot of this reminded me of Salman Rushdie’s equally heartfelt fables but it is Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum that the premise immediately brings to mind. Like these novelists, Ismailov intertwines many ancient fables and stories as allegories throughout the narrative.
Aside from being something of a magical realist coming of age tale, it is also a statement on the horror of atomic testing in regions where people actually lived, giving no thought or care to that fact, all in an effort to surpass their lone superpower rival. I also can’t help but wonder that Yerzhan’s affliction is also a metaphor for what goes through a child’s mind once the innocence of childhood begins to wane: the acknowledgment of death (not only in his relatives but also, in once scene, a baby fox which the family dog devours, causing the fox’s mother to howl outside their house all night), watching his once robust family members become older, frailer; the changes taking place all around them as the world moves further into the twentieth century. In a lot of ways this is a very heartfelt story, sad, funny, witty and informative. Brilliantly written, at times highly poetic. A highly recommended read.