Tag Archives: Russia

The Dead Lake (2011) – Hamid ISMAILOV

A new year, a new Peirene subscription. And while earlier series tended towards the Scandinavian, this year’s Coming of Age series takes us to Russia and Libya—though admittedly, still through the European languages of Russian and French. Still, it’s nice to see this publishing house move beyond their original remit. Hopefully it keeps things fresh and exciting.

When Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, its vast swathes of steppe were used to test nuclear weapons. In a tiny village near one of the anonymous test sites, Yerzhan is growing into a man. But it’s not easy to live in the literal shadow of nuclear weapons, and when Yerzhan stops growing just as he enters his teens, he begins to worry.

Though they are only tangentially related to the goings on of the politics of the Cold War, the spectre of the 1960s—and everything that came with it—lingers over these characters, in a way unlike any novel set in America, or even metropolitan Russia at the time. The war itself means nothing to their daily lives (other than the occasional piece of meaningless propaganda from the Soviets), and yet they feel the effects of it every day. They live close to an atomic test site, and their lives are punctuated by occasional nuclear explosions in the not-so-distant distance. Donkeys, horses and wolves all sense when an explosion is about to take place, and act as warning triggers for the humans. Even still, a nuclear explosion is nothing to be sneezed at, and the threat of being burned alive hangs over them like the heavy mushroom clouds that form after an experiment has been completed.

These tests have made the landscape even more desolate than it originally was.  More than anything, this work is an evocation of the landscape that forms the backdrop to the action. Ismailov paints a vivid picture of the desolately beautiful Kazakh steppe ruined by constant bombardment from these man-made . From grey nights to deserted ghost towns, there is a sense that these families are living in a barren land, a land that simply is not fit for humanity. And without spoiling anything, the bleak last line certainly feeds into that theme.

This sense of oppression filters through to the characters and their lives. From a young age, it is clear that Yerzhan, has a talent for music. He is quickly given the nickname Wunderkind (buldur kimdir in Kazakh) by his family, and is even given lessons by a man in the village who studied music in the capital. And yet, despite his obvious talent, when he is given the chance to move to the city to keep learning, his family deem it unnecessary. Instead, he continues to study in the backwater that is his village.

His anger at not being able to grow any more, then, is not just frustration at not being physically larger. At every turn, his emotional and cultural growth is stunted by the Soviets using his backyard as a dumping ground for their nuclear tests. He is unable to purse the career he wants, he is unable to live the lie he wants, and he cannot love the girl he loves without constant, niggling self-doubt.

Ignoring the (mostly) useless framing story about two men meeting on a train, The Dead Lake is a small window into a time and place untouched by Western concern, and Ismailove is not afraid of asking big questions. What happens to people outside the spheres of influence in a huge global movement? Deprived of any opportunity to better themselves, or to learn something new, or to dream large, how are people past even the fringes of society able to have a good life? Ismailov’s conclusions are a reminder of the ripple effect of war—it is not just those fighting who are affected, but all who are drawn into the vortex.

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House of Meetings (2004) – Martin AMIS

I went on a book buying binge the other day. My bad. But, in my defence, none of the books I bought were full price. So that counts for something, right? Anyway, this book was in the binge, and when I saw a cheap Martin Amis novel, I knew I was going to end up with it. Let’s face it – his novels I’ve read so far have been pretty amazing.

Our unnamed narrator is back in Russia, after a self imposed exile. At the age of eighty, he had returned to the sites of his incarceration at a gulag camp during and after the Second World War.  He remembers his relationship with his brother Lev, who married the woman our narrator had intended to marry, and the way this affected how each man saw the rest of the century play out in front of them.

I should start by pointing out that I have not read very much Russian literature, so I don’t really have a comparison to other books about Russia. But Amis does a fantastic job of recreating a part of history that is unwelcome in the public mindset. Obviously, Amis has a gift for writing unpleasant characters and situations, and a Russian gulag is no different. He vividly recreates the condidtions of the labor camp, from the physical squalor of camp conditions, to the social strata that pop up in the camp – right up to the lower class shiteaters. There’s a lot to love here, particularly since our unnamed narartor, for the most part, stays out of trouble. Instead, he must reflect on what his brother does when he arrives at the camp, and how his brother fits in to the already established order. Lev is, at first, willing to play the game, but by the end, he just doesn’t want to, forcing a wedge between the narrator and Lev, and setting up their relationship outside the camp.

Once the gulag parts of the novel end – about two thirds of the way through – House of Meetings does, to an extent, run out of steam. Trying to cover a lot of groun in not much time, Amis doesn’t leave himself enough room to tell us everything he wants – indeed, he barely mentions his marriage to his stepdaughter’s mother (important since the novel is a letter addressed to said stepdaughter) – and so the ending does feel rushed. In this sense, then, it does feel like a missed opportunity. This novel cries out to be a grand sweeping epic, in the Russian tradition, and yet it simply isn’t.

Having said this, the closing letter of the novel – a letter carried around by the narrator since a long time ago – is a perfect closing, and almost worth the cover price in itself. All Lev ever wanted was normality, but he has become so twisted by the experiences of the gulag, he can’t even make love to his wife anymore. The man outside the gulag gets off on the idea of physical love, but as Lev makes love to his wife for the first time in many years, he gets off on thoughts of food, of warmth, of freedom. And he can never change back to his old mindset. And he nearly goes mad because of this. This is, then, perhaps a timely reminder to the reader not to take things for granted. And yet, Amis never hits one over the head with this message, particularly since this revelation is only mentioned near the end of the novel. We want desperately to understand what has happened in the House of Meetings, but this blindlingly obvious and normal explanation makes the most sense. No lover’s tiff, no erectile dysfunction – simply the realisation of the simple things in life. A lovely thought.

Here’s the kicker, though. I reckon Amis is wasted on writing historical novels, no matter how obscure or disgusting the period of time he’s writing about. This man has such an amazing imagination and ability to write mind bendingly postmodern novels, that in many ways, I felt that House of Meetings could have been written by anyone. Sure, it’s probably better than the average historical novel, but I want more. So here’s the question, can you separate the author from their work? I’m going to go with probably not. We come to expect certain things from certain authors, and when we don’t get it, we, as readers, are disappointed. Well, maybe disappointed is not the right word. But there is a sense of loss when they don’t do what we expect. And that is, of course, completely our fault – I’m not blaming Amis at all. The thought is there, though. Who knows – maybe Amis has one trick, and when he doesn’t use it, novels don’t turn out so well.

I don’t want to put anyone off this novel – as a generic historical novel, it is perfectly competent. Indeed, it’s probably quite a bit better than competent. But, to judge it as an Amis novel, you would be (in my opinion) perfectly correct in saying it’s not one of his better works.

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Homesickness (1980) – Murray BAIL

I have tried to read this book about three times in the last three years. Each time, I’ve read about ten pages, and given up. Which is a shame, ’cause I loved Bail’s later work Eucalyptus, that doomed film with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. I think I’m glad it didn’t get made – Bail’s novels would not make very good films, I think. But enough about his famous work. Homesickness is Bail’s first novel, so despite his popularity and fame as a genius short story writer, I much prefer a good novel to sink my teeth into. And, I finally read it fully. So go me.

Homesickness is the story of thirteen people who have never met before. They have all been pushed together on a world tour, and together, must try to deal with the differences and similarities that every tourist must face when they leave the comfort of their own home. From the traditional married couple to the communist, the young naive girl to the wife beater, each of these characters provides a fascinating look at how people react to the changing world around them, in places they would normally never visit.

Murray Bail is a brilliant writer. I can’t believe it took me so long to get into this book. I don’t know what I was on. Maybe I was too young. Who knows. The point is, I’m an idiot. The language that fills this book is some of the most beautiful and evocative I have ever read. Eucalyptus comes a close second. I should stop mentioning that book. This book pulls off the unenviable task of having to try and recreate six different countries in a way that makes them all seem different, yet somehow similar at the same time. And Bail does it brilliantly. Each place they visit – Africa, London, Quito, New York, Russia – are all clearly different, yet there is somehow a sameness that runs through the book. Genius.

The other thing that I really love in this book is its museums. While Bail could very easily (and justifiably) treated a large number of his characters with contempt, he doesn’t. Each visit by these people is dominated by a visit to a museum of some kind – no doubt a subtle(-ish) message to all of those potential tourists who read this book wanting to do nothing but see everything that ‘has to be seen’ wherever they are going – and while there is the occasional moment of realisation for these characters that they are doing something highly superficial, for the most part not even we as readers are even aware of it. Though, there is one character who takes photos of everything. He’s there for a little knowing comic relief. Each museum is carefully chosen to represent an ‘intrinsic’ part of each country – New York’s museum is about marriage, while Quito’s is about feet (it makes perfect sense in the book) – and despite this, you still sometimes get the feeling that these tourists are still not quite getting ‘it’. Some of these scenes in Russia, in Lenin’s tomb, are downright hilarious – with the Cold War in full swing, some pretty naive Australians from whoop-whoop are saying some pretty dumb things.

The only criticism that I feel I should mention is that some of the passages begin to drag – especially in the middle. Maybe I’d just been reading too much of it at once. But enough of that. I could talk about this book for hours, and how wonderful it is. I won’t though. Suffice to say, I really like this book. Everyone needs to go out and read it. Now. Especially if, like me, you’ve done a bit of travelling. I suspect some of the jokes and ironies are there for people who have spent time travelling, whether it be on a bus, or some more ‘dirty’ exploring.

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