The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov: Peirene Press
Independent London book publishers Peirene Press have been releasing small but perfectly formed European literature for a while now, offering the always enticing discovery of authors otherwise overlooked and more often than not unpublished in English for those looking for a new foreign perspective, a corner of the world unseen or a view unknown to yourself. And all of lengths you can read in about 2 hours straight. Releasing three books a year united by a common theme, you either look for it in the shops or buy a subscription and have each book delivered straight to your door fresh off the printers.
They kick off this, their fifth year, with the first book in their Coming Of Age trilogy, The Dead Lake by Kyrgyzstani author and current BBC Writer In Residence Hamid Ismailov. In a tale riddled with magical realism and Kazakhstani folklore, the childhood and stilted adolescence of Yerzhan unfolds, living as he does in a two-house village in a remote part of Kazakhstan used by the Soviets for atom bomb testing. Caught between the traditionalism of his grandfather Daulet and the more modern pro-Russia ideals of his neighbour “Uncle” Shaken, he falls in love with his neighbour’s daughter, a love which will lead him to dive into a forbidden lake to impress her and doom him to never reach adulthood. But not in the way you imagine.
The spectre of the Cold War hangs heavy over the narrative like a mushroom cloud. The cruelty of nature out in the wilderness of the Steppes is contrasted sharply with the insane inconsideracy of the atom bomb testing in a populated area. Almost every major turning point in Yerzhan’s life arises because of yet another detonation in The Zone near his village, with the sky cracking, the ground shaking and the scorching of all living things. The epigram of the book states the amount of bombs dropped in this real life area, the equivalent in combined power of 2500 Nagasakis. On Soviet soil no less. Allegory after allegory for the horrors of Soviet Russia and the Cold War arms race follows organically from this. Yerzhan’s own inability to ever move beyond childhood is a clear metaphor for Soviet Russia’s retardation of the development of its satellite states.
The writing style is effectively simple, showing up starkly rather than hiding both the beautiful and the ugly in Yerzhan’s story. The increasing violence of the later chapters is coupled with increasing ambiguity with what exactly is true or merely the narrator’s own nightmarish additions to Yerzhan’s life. If you find yourself becoming lost at some points, you’re not alone. The last part in particular makes it very hard to tell where Yerzhan’s story begins and the Kazakhstani folklore that appears to reflect and mirror his life begins. The ending corroborates both of these possibilities, making it effectively chilling.
The Dead Lake is yet another stunning addition to the Peirene Press canon. It captivates with the creeping dread that settles in and pervades the tale, leaving you both wanting to know and dreading where the tale may turn next. It achieves what the best Peirene books do: shows you a view of the world and a space within that world that we rarely see or get to learn about, all wrapped up in a tale that will keep you thinking it over long after you finish it.
If you want to learn more about Peirene Press, check their website and keep your eyes peeled on Shlur for an interview with Peirene Press to come in the following weeks.