When Peirene #16, White Hunger, dropped through the postbox last week, I was horrified to find that the whole of Series 5 remained in the TBR. (Where does the time go?) Serendipitously I needed to read just three books to complete #tbr20. The time was right for a catch up.
I’m not going to review all three in depth because a) time just isn’t on my side right now, b) The Blue Room wasn’t really my cup of tea. (Let’s just say as Tomorrow Pamplona was too testostorony, there was far too much oestrogen in The Blue Room’s pages) and c) Under the Tripoli Sky with its depiction of abused womanhood and an ignored child made my blood boil. I need to calm down before writing about it.
I may come back and write full reviews of both at a later date because there is plenty to say. As a whole, I found Peirene’s Coming of Age Series to be the most thought-provoking to date.
Today though I’m concentrating on my favourite of the three. The review also serves as my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Literature Month.
The Dead Lake – Hamid Ismailov
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
An unnamed narrator is travelling by train across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan when he meets an incredibly talented 12-year old busker. The boy’s thick, adult voice and his snappy attitude belie the appearance of his body. He is a 27-year old man trapped in the body of a child.
Conditioned by The Tin Drum, my mind immediately sprung to Oskar Mazerath, but, thankfully stunted growth is the only thing Yerzhan has in common with Oskar (thankfully, because the world’s only big enough for one Oskar.) As Yerzhan travels on the train with the narrator, he reveals the story of his life in a place that is beautiful, remote and utterly exploited. His home, an isolated station on the Kazakhstan railway, lies in the vicinity of the Zone (the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site). His childhood spent riding to school on horses, fox hunting with his grandpa, learning to play the dombra is punctuated by strange and frightening phenomena; a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado. Ominous to us with hindsight, but to Yerzhan this is everyday life. (It would be – between 1949 and 1989, a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out at the SNTS.) Thrown to the ground, he gets up, dusts himself off and carries on with his daily business.
There appear to be no consequences and so, on the day when he is taken with his classmates to visit The Dead Lake – a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of a nuclear bomb – he casually strips off, takes a dip despite warnings to the contrary and his destiny is sealed. In the words of one of his folk songs:
When I am one, I’m in the cradle,
When I am five, I am God’s own creature,
When I am six, I’m like the birch pollen,
When I am seven, I’m the earth’s dust and its rot,
When I am ten, I’m like a suckling lamb,
And at fifteen I frolic like an elf and gnome ….
Others face fates no less dreadful. While the older generations live to a goodly age, radiation sickness takes hold of Yerzhan’s beloved cousin, Aisulu, who has grown inordinately tall. The cost is extraordinary with Yerzhan and Aisulu representative of blighted lives in the hundreds of thousands. The train journey across the Steppes, which has already lasted 4 days when the story begins, continues throughout the entire novella and beyond the end page. This emphasises the boundlessness of Kazakhstan, an area as large as Europe, and also the environmental devastation. On page one:
At every way station, the train was boarded by ever more vendors – all women – peddling camel wool, sun-dried fish or simply pellets of dried soured milk.
Busy bustle everywhere. As the train crosses the Steppes, approaching Yerzhan’s home, the narrator is seized by a nameless fear, the feeling of something inevitable yet hidden, that could be here, just round the next bend. By the time the train arrives at Yerzhan’s home station, Kara-Shagan, there are no signs of life, no chickens running around under the single elm some distance away, no old man with a little flag, no hay laid in for the winter, not even a single little cowpat anywhere.
The final sentence, which I won’t quote, couldn’t emphasise the plain fact more chillingly: it’s not just the lake that is dead.