Into The Zone

Early last year I read Hamid Ismailov's The railway, a sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful read, that failed however to grasp me. My feelings for his later novella, The Dead Lake, though are very different. It's a haunting, beautiful and upsetting tale set in a time and place in Soviet history that was initially repressed, and has now been largely, and wrongly, forgotten.

The novella begins on a train crossing the Kazakh steppe, when the narrator meets Yerzhan, who appears to be a young boy but is actually a young man. Yerzhan is a child prodigy, equally adept at playing the violin (his teacher who has been exiled to the Steppe is a former pupil of David Oistrakh) and the traditional dombra, one of the most popular of Kazakh instruments.

Yerzhan tells the story of his life growing up in a close family in remote Kazakhstan at the height of the Cold War; in love with his beautiful cousin, Aisulu, and torn between modern life and the traditional life of the Steppe. This curiously idyllic life however is not without a dark side. Yerzhan's Uncle Shaken is part of a nuclear testing programme, which he assures Yerzhan is to keep the Soviet Union a step in front of the Americans. At the heart of the testing programme is "The Zone", an area of Kazakhstan where nuclear missiles are tested. Yerzhan's life will change forever when he visits "The Zone" one day and dives into the Dead Lake to impress Aisulu. From that moment, he will fail to grow, while Aisulu grows tall and willowy and ultimately sick, just like the nuclear blasted grasslands.

At the heart of the tale is an environmental catastrophe. Between 1945 and 1989, over 200,000 inhabitants of the area around Semipalatinsk were routinely exposed to lethal levels of radiation. It is believed that the testing in that area was akin to 2,500 nuclear explosions of the level that wiped out Hiroshima. The effects on the population have been long lasting and continue into the present time.

Yerzhan's tale is heartbreakingly sad, but there are also moments of great beauty. Ismailov's writing is wonderful turning from darkness to light, with moments of humour and love. The translator, Andrew Bromfield, does a great job here capturing the rhythms of the original language so that the pulse of horses' hooves and the train rumbling across the Steppe breathe through the narrative.

For a novel that is ultimately very sad, there is also something wonderfully life affirming and loving about it. A must-read.

The dead lake is one of a series of short "2-hour" novellas published by Peirene Press. They're all translations, and judging by The dead lake, they're well worth investigating further.


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