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