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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“Under the Tripoli Sky” by Kamal Ben Hameda

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“I was a child, primarily interested in self-discovery; quivering in response to forces that I didn’t suspect but that she knew how to elicit, and therefore deaf to what she was confiding.” P.64

 

Published by Peirene Press, Under the Tripoli Sky (La Compagnie des Tripolitaines in its original French title) offers an intriguing insight into Libyan life. But first, for those of you unaware of Peirene, allow me to introduce you to its publisher. A newcomer to the publishing world, Peirene dedicates its efforts to the best of contemporary European fiction. Their work is ‘thought provoking, well designed, short’ according to their website and I can vouch for that description. Since their first publication in 2010, Peirene have begun to develop a series of books which follow a journey of different themes (the ‘female voice’ to ‘male dilemma’ to ‘turning point’ and so on), all united by their being excellent, European translations. Under the Tripoli Sky is the 15th title in the series and will be published next month (September 2014). In addition to their publications, Peirene sympathise with writers and readers by admitting that ‘both reading and writing can be a lonely affair’ and so they also host an array of regular literary events ‘from informal coffee mornings to exciting literary salons and tailor-made, exclusive events’. I haven’t been to one myself but I have been made aware of their presence from the flurry of positive tweets that appear after each event and they look to be brilliant, engaging affairs. Even before I’d read the book, I felt ready to embrace Peirene for their dedication to producing the best European fiction in English translation in books of true quality. And the books really do live up to their reputation. It is heart-warming to see a publisher putting real value back into literature, value that has been sucked out of our beloved art form by capitalist monsters such as Amazon, and for this I take my hat off and salute the work of Peirene Press.

 

As I say, the book itself is a fine edition, a sleek cover with a soothing feel and lovely crisp paper. The story itself is part of the coming-of-age series and follows its narrator Hadachinou in his meanderings through pre-Gaddafi Tripolitan life. And it is a meandering, with no strict plot, but rather this young boy allows his reader a glimpse of the Libyan capital from his innocent but inquisitive perspective. One of the first things I noticed in Under the Tripoli Sky was Hameda’s continuous reference to the light and the heat of the city, weather being a crucial part of people’s culture (as we know all too well in the UK!). With the meandering, nonchalance of the narrative and the frequent description of light, there are clear links to be drawn with another novel/novella written in French by a North African writer – Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. It is a comparison that throws up many similarities since both are told in the first person from the POV of a persona who struggles with their place in society and are slightly confused by the world that they live in. I would love to hear whether Hameda was conscious of Camus’ masterpiece when he wrote this nouvella.

 

The depiction of Tripolitan society is fascinating and a privilege to observe for the outsider.  Firstly there is a distinct segregation between the men and women in Libyan society. While the two necessarily interact through marriage, the two groups seem to be disparate, each one having a strong sense of fraternity amongst each other respectively but distrust or dislike for one another. The male adults are often defined in terms of their virility and their violence, and they appear demanding of their wives who run around after the men when they want food or anything else. Indeed the women express their view that men lead their lives with their penis, and the narrator himself picks up on this when he satirises the local men:

 

“Most of their customers were heading for the local brothel and had their shoes cleaned to while away the time until they were shown through those doors that admitted a queue of regulars through those doors that admitted a queue of regulars one by one, men of every colour, from every corner of the land, all lined up in orderly fashion.”

 

Typically, Tripolitan society is fragmented by issues of race, religion, origins, and the young narrator picks up on the amusing fact that the only time that equality and democracy is possible is at the door of the a brothel. The females, on the other hand, have a light-hearted approach to life and are defined by their stoicism and even their happiness. They are starkly juxtaposed against the men in passage of Hadachinou’s circumcision by his father in the company of his father’s friends:

 

“The barber takes a razor blade in one hand and my foreskin in the other, and prepares to cut it. Only now, at last, do I gauge the extent of the threat and try to get away; two men leap up and hold me firmly.

Blood springs out…

 

…Lost in this indefinable chasm, I suddenly become aware of an explosion of women’s laughter from the kitchen, a burst of cheerful voices lilting with the sheer joy of life and jostling together like a mass of balloons released to mark a feast day. What the men were up to was clearly no concern to them…” p.20

 

The dark, male seriousness of the ceremony is somehow even more disturbing when placed beside the jovial disregard of the women, and this forces the reader to reflect on the ceremony of circumcision.

 

Where the solidarity between the men in the novel seemed formal, traditional, customary, the solidarity amongst the female was genuine, warm and admirable. They play their social role as is expected of them, and then they take the freedom to do what they want; they chat, share stories, gossip, satirise and damn their husbands. Hadachinou’s mother and her close friend, Jamila, have created a woman’s aid group which collects money every month and allows women who are struggling financially to buy what they need because in this chauvinistic society the men have control of the house’s finance. This made me think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, another novel I recently read and adored which takes place again in Africa, this time in Nigeria, but again where men control the family’s finances and gives his wife money as and when required. I think sometimes when we live in a democratic country as I do in the UK you can democracy and our relative equality for granted, and it is such glimpses offered by literature that allow us to reflect on how much progress there is still to be made in the world. Hence why we need more translated fiction in the UK (in my opinion, at least!).

 

Yet as is hinted at by the novel’s inclusion in the ‘coming-of-age’ section of Peirene’s series, Hadachinou’s maturation and psychological development is one of the central themes of Under the Tripoli Sky. His inquisitive nature sees him progress his awareness in multiple areas of his life, from his scepticism about the putatively violent and tradition-based nature of masculine society, to his awareness of a feminine backlash in the gossip of his mother and her associates, to more personal aspects such as his understanding of the naked body and sexual instinct. I thought the passages after Hadachinou’s peculiar and enigmatic encounter with Narcissus were extremely well done and you can begin to see how the language takes on the new sexualised world that Hadachinou has been made aware of. For example,

 

“At daybreak, her supple, floating footsteps.

I crouch outside her bedroom silently. She’s standing silhouetted against the open window and I can make out the sway of her hips as she switches her weight from one foot to the other. Her rounded buttocks protrude beneath her nightdress, cleaving together along the angle of her hips like twin apples hanging from a branch.” P.56

 

Despite its incisive examination of Tripolitan society, wrangling with a number of themes, and compelling detailing of the development of a young Libyan boy, I felt that the most wonderful thing about this novella is its language. Take this passage for example:

 

“The last vestiges of sleep were still weighing heavily on my eyelids when the naked light of dawn slowly appeared, spreading across the carpet. I stretched and closed my eyes again to preserve the image for a moment, but the first rays of sunlight danced over my face as if to thwart me and snatch me from my voluptuous indolence…” p.15

 

How sexy is that! No prizes for guessing that Hameda has produced ‘several collections of poetry’ and these is doubtlessly a poetic quality about his prose. This is also true of the structure of the prose. Hameda often begins his paragraphs or sections with a very short, emphatic sentence before setting off into his prose and I thought these opening sentences were fantastic, really giving you something to mull over before you set off into the rest of the section. Credit is also due here for Adriana Hunter whose translation is impeccable, completely idiomatic, fluid yet totally beautiful and communicating the poetic style and language of Hameda’s prose.

 

I flaming loved Under the Tripoli Sky and I can’t wait to revisit it. I hope I’ve given you a good flavour for the novella, enough for you to go out and have a taste for yourself. I’m looking forward to dipping into the rest of the series now, hopefully getting a hold of Hameda’s original en français and I look forward to hearing you thoughts if you have been lucky enough to read this little stunner. I am extremely grateful to Peirene for sending me a review copy of Under the Tripoli Sky – follow them on Twitter (they are a top follow!) @Peirenepress and you can get the book or any others from the series here. Thanks for reading!