We’ve left the world of literary dreamscapes, finding ourselves on a train slowly making its way across the vast steppes of central Asia. This leg of our IFFP journey promises to be a lengthy one, so while we’re waiting to arrive at our destination, let’s pass the time with a few stories. Funnily enough, there’s one for just this very occasion – tickets, please 😉
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Peirene Press (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
What’s it all about?
A Kazakh man is in the middle of a lengthy train journey across the steppe when a boy gets on, selling food and drink, and playing the violin like a virtuoso. Intrigued, the traveller decides to talk to the newcomer, only to find that he’s not a boy at all. The violinist is actually twenty-seven years old, and the story of why he looks like a twelve-year-old is a fascinating one…
Yerzhan, the youthful musician, decides to tell the traveller his story, and it’s a tale by turns intriguing and chilling. Growing up in an isolated two-house hamlet, the young man tells his audience of a childhood spent riding horses, developing his prodigious musical talents and playing with his neighbour, Aisulu, the girl he intends to marry when he grows up. However, there’s a shadow on the horizon, often a literal one, and when he sets eyes on a lake one day, his future fate is sealed.
This was one of the few Peirene books I hadn’t read, and to be honest, I was surprised when I heard about its selection as I was fairly sure that Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room would be the one to make the cut. If I’d thought about it a little more, though, I may well have opted for this one as it has all the hallmarks of an IFFP longlist book: a slightly exotic locale, a coming-of-age story under adversity, and a slightly political edge – perfect for the curious, well-travelled literary explorer 😉
The main part of The Dead Lake begins as a Bildungsroman, with Yerzhan relating events from his childhood, stories inextricably bound up with descriptions of the beauty of the steppe:
“For anyone who has never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by the wilderness on all sides. But those who have lived here since time out of mind know how rich and variable the steppe is. How multicoloured the sky above. How fluid the air around. How varied the plants. How innumerable the animals in it and above it. A dust storm can spring out of nowhere. A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling around the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine. The entire, imponderable weight of that immense, heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land.”
pp.45/6 (Peirene Press, 2014)
The weary traveller is treated to tales of the long trek to school (on a donkey); the harsh, snowy winters where the only way out of the house is through the window; the boy’s bravado when faced with wolves on the steppe. Later, the two families that make up the small community experience the wonders of the outside world with the arrival of first radio, then television. It’s a wonderful tale of the slow development of an isolated hamlet, and this alone would make for an interesting story.
More and more, though, something darker begins to cast its shadow across Yerzhan’s childhood. The wide-open spaces contrast with the fenced-off, forbidden zone in the middle of the steppe – as nuclear testing becomes more frequent, there are rumbles across the land and dark, ominous clouds in the sky:
“The steppe appeared sombre, just like the faces of the people. Leaden clouds swept across the sky without rain or snow. Hollow clouds, neither resounding with thunder nor flashing with lightning.” (p.29)
Little do the people know the torment those clouds will eventually bring…
Yerzhan’s connection to the forbidden zone is his uncle, whose work leads him to spend time there. It’s on a school trip to the zone (a propaganda visit to fill the children with national pride…) that the boy first sees the dead lake, a body of water straight out of Kazakh folklore, glittering in the sunlight:
“It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud.” (p.65)
Having been told the stories of the mythical dead lake as child, Yerzhan sees the water as a beautiful, deadly temptation. Unfortunately, it’s one a teenager is unlikely to be able to resist.
The story, interesting in its own right, is enhanced by the way in which it is related by the traveller. The calm, measured, detached style reflects the traveller’s distance from events, and in the final section, as the young man sleeps, the traveller fills the gaps in himself, wondering how Yerzhan’s story might end. The reader is never quite sure what’s fact and what’s in the narrator’s mind; just as in another Peirene favourite, Next World Novella, the reader must be very careful to distinguish between the ‘real’ and imagined stories.
A word here on the publishers, who will be thrilled at having had a title longlisted for the fifth consecutive year (in fact, in all five years of their existence). Peirene Press only publish three titles a year, all literary novellas, and their brand has obviously struck a chord with the various IFFP panels over the years. It’s a fantastic achievement, one which should be acknowledged and celebrated a little more than it has been – well done to all involved 🙂
Returning to this book, the final scene sees Yerzhan leaving the train, allowing the traveller a glimpse of what the culmination of the young man’s story might be. However, as is the case with the rest of the tale, it’s fairly ambiguous – the truth is that, like people passing through on a train, we’ll never know exactly what happened. All we can say for certain is that in the race for military progress and supremacy, the casualties weren’t always brought about by the enemy; when you see the smoke rising above the steppe, it gives the expression ‘friendly fire’ a whole new meaning…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
This one was right on the cusp for me, one of several books vying for the final slots in my personal half-dozen. As someone with a penchant for long, complex novels, novellas are always carrying a bit of a handicap into these prizes, but The Dead Lake, like most of the Peirene selections, deserved its place on the longlist – and possibly a little bit more 😉
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Not sure, really. Having read the whole list, I would have predicted the judges would choose this one. With Peirene having had so much success over the past few years, the judges obviously thought it was time to shine a light on other small presses, like And Other Stories and Pushkin Press, instead. Good for them – but a shame for Peierene, Ismailov and Bromfield 😦
Well, all train journeys come to an end at some point, and having crossed the steppes intact, it’s time to head back to… yes, you’ve guessed it – Germany. In a slightly more urban story, we’ll be checking in with a rather unusual family, and we might even have time to catch a show. Now, how does a date with a hypnotist sound?