The Dead LakeHamid Ismailov
A haunting Russian tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War.
Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Kazakhstan where the Soviets test atomic weapons. As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake. The radioactive water changes Yerzhan. He will never grow into a man. Meanwhile, the girl he loves becomes a beautiful woman.
LONG-LISTED FOR THE INDEPENDENT FOREIGN FICTION PRIZE 2015
LONG-LISTED FOR THE INTERNATIONAL DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD 2016
INDEPENDENT BOOK OF THE YEAR 2014
GUARDIAN READERS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2014
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
Like a Brothers Grimm Fairytale, this story transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality. We witness a prepubescent boy’s secret terror of not growing up into a man. We also wander in a beautiful, fierce landscape unlike any other we find in Western literature. And by the end of Yerzhan’s tale we are awe-struck by our human resilience in the face of catastrophic, man-made, follies.
Written by Hamid Ismailov.
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield.
Coming of Age Series
128pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Published February 2014
Born in 1954 in Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. He writes both in Russian and Uzbek and his novels and poetry have been translated into many European languages, including German, French and Spanish. In 1994 he was forced to flee to the UK because of his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. He now works for the BBC World Service. The Railway was his first novel to be published in English in 2006, followed by A Poet and Bin-Laden in 2012. His work is still banned in Uzbekistan today.
Andrew Bromfield’s career of more than twenty years as a translator of Russian literature had its beginnings in Moscow during the perestroika period. In 1991 he was a founding editor of the journal Glas: New Russian Writing. His work since then includes translations of a wide range of Russian writers, among them two previous books by Hamid Ismailov.
‘A haunting and resonant fable.’ Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
‘A tantalising mixture of magical and grim realism… a powerful study of alienation and environmental catastrophe.’ David Mills, Sunday Times
‘Ismailov’s ability to show how lives seemingly on the periphery are at the heart of the human experience – and to leave us enraged and bewitched – confirms him as a writer of immense poetic power.’ Kapka Kassabova, Guardian
‘A novella which draws on myth, fairy tale, poetry and traditional story-telling, it stirs them together to create an unusual parable of a modern arms race cruelly impacting on a traditional way of life.’ Elizabeth Buchan, Daily Mail
‘Hamid Ismailov has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground.’ Literary Review
Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the
East Kazakhstan Railway, into the family of his grandfather, Daulet, a trackman, one of those who tap wheels and brake shoes at night and during the day, following a phone call from a dispatcher, go out to switch the points so that some weary old freight train can wait while an express or passenger special like ours hurtles straight through the junction.
The column for ‘Father’ in his birth certificate had
remained blank, except for a thick stroke of the pen, and
the only entry, under ‘Mother’, was for Kanyshat, Daulet’s
daughter, who also lived at the way station (which everyone called a ‘spot’). The ‘spot’ consisted of two railway houses.
In one lived, in addition to Yerzhan, his grandfather and
mother, his grandmother, Ulbarsyn, and her younger son,
Yerzhan’s uncle, Kepek. The second way-station house
was occupied by the family of Grandad Daulet’s late
shift partner, Nurpeis: his widow, Granny Sholpan, her
son, Shaken, with his city bride, Baichichek, and their
daughter, Aisulu. Aisulu was a year younger than Yerzhan.
Nurpeis himself had fallen under a non-scheduled train.
And that was the entire population of Kara-Shagan,
if you didn’t count the fifty or so sheep, three donkeys,
two camels and the horse, Aigyr, all owned between the
two families. There was also the dog, Kapty. But he lived
with Aisulu most of the time, so Yerzhan didn’t think of
him as his own. Just as he didn’t take into account the
clutch of dusty chickens with a pair of loud-voiced cocks,
since they multiplied and decreased in numbers in such
a mysterious fashion that none of the Kara-Shaganites
ever knew how many of them there were.
Multiplying in a mysterious fashion is a relevant point
here, since in fact no one, except perhaps God, knew how
Yerzhan’s mother, Kanyshat, became pregnant with him
and by whom. Cursed by her father from that time on,
she never spoke a word about it to her ‘immaculately
conceived’ son. And all that Yerzhan knew – from what
Granny Ulbarsyn told him – was that at the age of sixteen
Kanyshat had run into the steppe after her silk scarf, which
had blown off. The steppe wind lured her on, further and
deeper, as if teasing her, on and on towards the sunset. And
what happened after that was so fantastic that Yerzhan
couldn’t make any sense of it. The sun was already sinking
when suddenly it soared back up into the sky, glowing
brightly. A tremor ran through the earth from the horizon.
A whistling wind sprang up out of nowhere, then faded
away for an instant, only to reverse its direction with a
mighty rush so sudden that the dust of the steppe swirled
up to the heavens in a black, hurtling tornado. And when
Kanyshat, more dead than alive, discovered that she was
at the bottom of a gully, there standing over her scratched
and bloody body was a creature who looked like an alien
from another planet, wearing a spacesuit.
Three months later, when she began to show, Daulet,
foaming with rage, brutally beat and cursed her for ever.
If Kepek and Shaken hadn’t pulled the old man away
from his half-dead daughter and dragged him to Granny
Sholpan’s house, neither Kanyshat nor her son would
have been long for this world.
Since that day Kanyshat hadn’t spoken a word.
For Reading Groups
Take a look at our questions for suggested discussion; food for thought for your reading group:
1 Is Yerzhan a Kazakh Peter Pan? Could he have been created by a western author?
2 The Kazakh steppe plays a more significant role in the narrative than merely providing a location. Discuss.
3 Do you feel the true horror of exposure to radiation is addressed in the narrative?
4 Political discord between the East and West is reflected in the music Yerzhan plays and enjoys. Do you sympathise with his split loyalties?
5 Do you consider Shaken’s eternal pursuit of America hypocritical?
6 Yerzhan’s mother is mute. Which emotions do you think the author aims to evoke in the reader?
7 Despite his bitter temperament as an adult, Yerzhan’s recollections of childhood are nonetheless affectionate. Why might this be? Would you have reacted in a similar way had you found yourself in his position?
8 How significant to the plot are the narrator’s contributions? How valuable is the narrator’s encounter with Yerzhan?
9 The two grandmothers die in freak accidents. What is the significance of this?
10 Little is made of the fact that Aisulu is equally affected by the nearby nuclear tests. Why do you think this is not expanded on?
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