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.