The Dead Lake
Hamid Ismailov
Andrew Bromfield, Translator

Kazakhstan is one of those impossible regions or areas or countries or provinces that occur somewhere there to the east of Russia, to the west of China, and more or less connected to Mongolia. It is made up of fifteen districts, all of which are a challenge to the epiglottis, long lovely words with too many consonants and too few vowels.

Recognizing them may come easily to those who speak Kazakh, but are the stuff of nightmare for those of us fresh out of English II. Zyryanovsk, Shemonaikha, Molodyozhny, Borodulikha . . . and for the drinkers in the crowd, Glubokoye. (Speaking of drinking, the main sport in Kazakhistan is bandy --- not brandy --- which is played in an ice rink; the region finished third at the Spartakiade 2009.)

Who are we to complain, what with strange names of our own: Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma --- and cities like Twig, Minnesota; Tightwad, Missouri; Experiment, Georgia; Kickapoo, Kansas; and Pee Pee, Ohio (or, perhaps, better spelled, Pee Pee OH).

Anyway, in Dead Lake, we are aboard the East Kazakhstan Railway, stopping in the Kara-Shagan way-station, and a boy looking to be twelve years old boards the train, takes his violin off his back and starts playing a Brahms Hungarian Dance.

This is no amateur. The playing is perfect, passionate, beautiful. And when the narrator gets to know him, it turns out that Yerzhan is no child: he's twenty-seven years old, a master of the classical violin and the dombra (used in Kazakhstan for folk music).

No one, especially him, seems to know or wants to talk about why the boy has stopped growing (and we don't learn until half-way through the book). We do learn that his love of music and his ability to play it never stopped. We also learn that being trapped at one age when you should be another leads to frustration, anger, a quick temper . . . and endless regret. Me? I wouldn't at all mind being frozen at nineteen or so; in fact, would embrace it with love and kisses. But from what I remember of being twelve: no thanks.

The Dead Lake has to do with the culture of a far village in the steppe, social isolation in the lower eastern wilds of Russia, the hardship of living in the boonies where it's impossible to get what you want when you want it: like an education; or music lessons; or a good nip of Stolichnaya Gold.

However the heart of this story has to do with people who live in "The Dead Zone" --- the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site.

This made the inhabitants unwitting and unwilling parties to the 468 Soviet nuclear explosions that took place between 1949 and 1989. This is what happens at a near-by school on days of a test:

    It was during a Kazakh-language lesson that the classroom window started to jangle and the benches shifted around on the floor. The blackboard crashed down off the wall and trapped their terrified teacher, lame-legged Kymbat. Yerzhan dashed forwards and rescued her. Then he ordered his classmates to crawl underneath their desks. A rumbling ran through the ground again. He broke out a window. His hand bled but he ignored the the cut and dragged Aisulu into the open. A humming blast of air zoomed past and the tiles of the school roof came tumbling down.

How often did these "tests" occur? "It happened in winter, and at night, and in autumn, and in the morning, and in the music, and in a pause in the music --- without any regularity or forewarning, it could always happen, at any moment, hanging over his head as implacably as fear itself, as the future."

The children wanted to know what it was, and why it was, so Yerzhan's Uncle Shaken explains that the government wants their country to compete with the Americans who had their own bombs, albeit thousands of miles away, on an island called Bikini.

One day, Yerzhan's class at school were taken into the Dead Zone to see the Dead Lake, "a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb." It was

    a fairy-tale 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 --- a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys' and girls' faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore.

Yerzhan wonders if there is some "fairy-tale fish" or a "monster of the deep" to be found in this static dense water. He takes off his T-shirt and trousers and "walked calmly into the forbidden waters" despite the fact that his teacher had told the students to stay away from it. "For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiring and terrified twittering of Aisulu and the others, he walked out of the water, shook himself off as if nothing had happened and dressed again in his canvas trousers and Chinese T-shirt." He was never to grow after that day in the water.

§   §   §

For those looking for action, plot, events, excitement, and profound sentiment, this novel is not it. Rather, what it offers is a gentle interregnum where our author shares one of his experiences, writes about it with ironic understatement, and then moves on. The readers are left with the memory of a town whose six citizens are swept up in the passions of a war (or near-war) that should not have ever concerned them, that came to them from thousands of miles away --- came to personally devastate their health, their community, their lives, their countryside.

    For anyone who had never lived in the steppe, it is hard to understand how it is possible to exist surrounded by this wilderness on all sides. But those who have lived here since time out of mind known how rich and variable the steppe is. How multicolored the sky above. How fluid the air all around. How varied the plants. How innumerable the animals in it and above it. A dust storm can spring out of nowhere. A yellow whirlwind can suddenly start twirling round the air in the distance in the same way that women spin camel wool into twine, The entire imponderable weight of that immense heavy sky can suddenly whistle across the becalmed, submissive land . . . .

    Had the chain-reaction Shaken was using to catch up with and overtake America in this godforsaken steppe, in this hell on earth that was called the Zone, taken place by mistake not in a reactor but in a boy, exploding like a dwarf star inside him?

--- Pamela Wylie
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