Review: “The Dead Lake” by Hamid Ismailov

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“This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible. I was travelling across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan…” p.9

Recently longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the thirteenth publication from Peirene Press, and the first from their “coming-of-age” series. Together, The Blue Room, Under The Tripoli Sky and The Dead Lake form a devastating trio spanning three continents and three vastly different cultural landscapes, united by deeply pensive narrators who are each meandering through their own adolescence simmering in their existential angst, trying to ascribe meaning to their existence and life experience. Each book offers a short yet deeply engaging and provocative vignette of different fascinating cultures and allows you to become an insider, to explore worlds far-flung from your own (or at least my own) and, crucially, to come back to reflect on your own situation and culture.

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The Dead Lake begins with a stark preface, photographed above, that immediately gives you the context for the novel. Set in Kazakhstan, the novel familiarises the reader with the seemingly endless, lonely, barren landscape of the Kazakh steppe, a word that crops up again and again as the novel proceeds. It is an expansive, wide-open land that seems only to be populated by rusty railway tracks, plodding donkeys, mysterious lakes and the characters of Ismailov’s novella. Intermittent explosions from atomic test sites play over this landscape like the novella’s very own soundtrack, and the true horror of these atomic experiments become an accepted part of reality and, tragically, perhaps even something mundane for those living in the area. The narrative beings on a train with a talented young boy playing Brahms ‘with such incredible dexterity and panache that at once all the compartment doors slid open and the passengers’ drowsy faces appeared’. It conspires that this boy, initially presumed to be ‘a ten- or twelve-year-old boy’, is actually 27. The narrator engages the man in conversation, and thus we are told the sad story of Yerzhan, a tale of lost promise, lost love and a melancholic re-telling of the fable of Peter Pan.

Yerzhan grows up in a loving home and enjoys a happy childhood roaming the landscape of the steppe with his childhood sweetheart Aisulu. He shows great promise as a young musician, and he is full of the zest of youth. Despite the rumblings of the explosions which follow Yerzhan around as he treks back and forth to his violin tutor’s home, Yerzhan develops a close relationship with the steppe, which he seems to find intriguingly beautiful and mysterious. As the narrator so wonderfully puts it,

“The joy of the steppe, the joy of music and the joy of childhood always coexisted in Yerzhan with the anticipation of that inescapable, terrible, abominable thing that came as a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado from the Zone.”

His fascination with the steppe comes to a head one day when faced with The Dead Lake of the title. Despite being warned about the lake’s peculiarity, Yerzhan, bursting with youthful enthusiasm and energy, is seduced by its strange beauty:

“It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale like lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples, no trembling…” p.65

It is interesting to note that it is the stillness of the water that attracts him; ‘trembling’ is a word frequently used to describe the explosions and so his desire to enter the serenity of the lake might be thought of as an escapist attempt to move away from the horrors of the Zone. He cannot resist the lake’s allure, and with little or no hesitation Yerzhan strips off and struts calmly into the water. This mundane event is told in richly symbolic prose, expertly captured by the novella’s translator, Andrew Bromfield, always foreboding the consequences of Yerzhan’s apparent heedlessness, the consequences of which the reader is aware of from the first chapter.

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What I liked most about The Dead Lake is, like The Blue Room and Under The Tripoli Sky, it is told in a very simple, yet effective and moving literary style. Even in the happier episodes of the novel recounting Yerzhan’s youth as a promising musician, the language is tinged with a quiet melancholy caused by the clever way Ismailov has structured the novel. In addition to the larger themes of atomic warfare and the ethics of warzones, I loved the novella’s portrayal of the art of storytelling which is perhaps much more subtle yet just as powerful. The Dead Lake is full of people telling stories: whether this is Yerzhan telling his story to the man on the train which frames the novella, or Yerzhan’s grandmother telling him fables in his youth, or the stories/rumours which echo among Yerzhan’s friends at school. The story represents a deeply powerful medium that can touch and change lives. Coming out of all these stories is the book itself, one that, despite its size, gives the reader plenty to consider and it is one that left its mark on me long after the final page.

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The Dead Lake is available to buy from Peirene Press here. You can read my reviews of the two other titles from Peirene’s “coming-of-age” series, The Blue Room and Under The Tripoli Sky, here and here. Thank you for reading.

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4 thoughts on “Review: “The Dead Lake” by Hamid Ismailov

    1. Agreed! I’m enjoying your reviews on the IFFP longlist and hopefully will start making my way through them soon. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

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