Book 46: Uzbekistan (English) – The Dead Lake (translation of: Вундеркинд Ержан = Wunderkind Yerzhan) (Hamid ISMAILOV)
Towards evening Uncle Shaken took the children to the Dead Lake. ‘Don’t drink the water and do not touch it,’ he told them. It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. 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. Could there possibly be some fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?
The bus driver called Uncle Shaken to help him with a punctured tyre. Yerzhan was left in charge of the class. He saw his long shadow reflected on the water’s surface. Dean Reed in the boundless steppe, underneath the limitless sky, above the bottomless water. He briefly took Aisulu’s hand. Then he let go of it and pulled off his T-shirt and trousers and walked calmly into the forbidden water. For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiration 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.
Nobody snitched on him. And for a long time afterwards everyone recalled with respectful admiration Wunda’s dramatic escapade.
I’ve long felt a special connection with Uzbekistan, both because of a long fascination with Central Asia and because I was privileged to visit in the year it became independent from the USSR.
The author Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, lived in Uzbekistan (whence he was forced to flee in 1994) and now lives in Britain, and this book is set in Kazakhstan. Does he qualify for my Uzbek writer? Well, it seems everyone doing a similar project to this one thinks so, and has chosen him. (Fair enough; after all, Uzbekistan lies at the very heart of the Silk Road, so you should expect a bazaar of influences, cultures and ethnicities, especially with the crazy, artificial borders left in Central Asia by the collapse of the USSR.) However, while they seem to have all gone for his The Railway, I’ve chosen The Dead Lake.
With a title like that coming from an Uzbek writer, you might (like me) expect the Dead Lake to be the what’s left of the Aral Sea (which perhaps should now be re-named the Arid Sea). But it refers to another Soviet ecological catastrophe, in another country altogether.
The scene is the Polygon, the poisoned zone in Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union carried out its atmospheric and underground nuclear tests, seemingly without any consideration for the people who lived on the supposedly empty steppe (which can’t help reminding this Australian of the British tests here).
The narrator meets “Wunderkind” Yerzhan on a train across the Kazakh steppe, where he is playing the violin. He angers Yerzhan, who has been permanently stunted by the incident of rash childish bravado I quoted above, by mistaking him for a 12-year-old boy (he is in fact 27). As the train rattles over the endless plain, he learns Yerzhan’s tragic story (and fills in some of the gaps himself).
After he realises at 12 that he has stopped growing, Yerzhan makes pathetic attempts to stretch himself.
The railway seems to be a symbol of progress, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish a nuclear test from a rumbling train. So often in this world you wonder whether ‘progress’, even on balance, is worth it, most especially for the people unfortunate enough to live where there are resources (minerals, forests, agricultural land, or just space) that others covet.
I’ll never forget Ismailov’s exquisite potted legend of that other Wunderkind, Mozart.
What a tragedy that this incandescent, angry and compassionate book, along with Ismailov’s other works, is banned in Uzbekistan.
ISMAILOV, Hamid (1954 – ), The Dead Lake, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, Peirene, London, 2014, ISBN 978-1-908670-14-4
I thought you might be interested in a list of my favourite discoveries from my reading challenge so far, things that I hope you will enjoy as much as I did without the efffort of having to read the whole world to discover them.
I mostly haven’t included the great classics here (such as To Kill a Mockingbird) since so many people are already familiar with them. One exception I’ll mention is Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. I was expecting it to be as frosty and difficult to get through as a Russian winter, but instead found its relatively light style and quirky viewpoint delightful (despite the morbid subject matter).
Maaza Mengiste’s devastating Ethiopian novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was another unpleasant subject but a searing indictment of dictatorship and military rule.
Pamuk’s Snow was such a brilliant portrayal of Turkey’s travails at the faultline between Asia and Europe that I want to read all his works.
Please Look After Mother (or Mom, if you have a US edition) by Shin Kyung-Sook really touched my heart.
I think my biggest personal discovery so far is the Albanian Ismail Kadare (post still to come) – I definitely want to read him out!
But one of my favourites – and certainly the funniest so far – is Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)
“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”
Reviewers often claim that a book is “laugh-out-loud funny”. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but I never find myself laughing out loud. But this one (along with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books) is the exception. It is the hilarious story of a zany, dysfunctional English Ukrainian family. The eccentric father falls for a gold-digging vampish younger woman (Valentina) from Ukraine, and his two very different sibling-rivalry-smitten daughters alternate between trying to save him from himself and pecking at each other. The “eighty-four-year-old teenager” is happiest living in his own private world, “furrowing up trails of gleaming brown ideas” (take that, Chomsky!), and when his real soul-mate turns up (also from Ukraine), it turns out to be platonic (for it is a ((slightly younger)) man who is also under the spell of Valentina) but similarly obsessed with engineering inventions.
And yes, you will learn all you need to know about the history of tractors (don’t worry, it’s not very much!)
I love the Communist-style cardboard cover design of this edition! and also the wonderfully quirky title, which manages to be both pseudo-boring and intriguing at the same time. I don’t think you will forget the wonderful, quirky characters in this novel. And it’s very, very funny. This is one that I can’t recommend too highly.
LEWYCKA, Marina (1946 – ), A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, London, Penguin, 2006 (first published Viking, 2005), ISBN 978-0-141-02576-6