Review: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

The literary cinema of Peirene rumbles on with The Dead Lake, part of it’s new 2014 series ‘Coming of Age: Towards Identity’. The first in the series, The Dead Lake  begins in a way that rings bells with the a growing trend in modern cinema; the based on a true story epitaph. Postmodern cinematic trends aside, the movies rely on these epitaphs in ways that the novel does not because we are expecting to be suspended in fictional reality with a novel. The movie increasingly needs to add credibility to it’s tired Hollywood vehicle. However two non-fictions here are the brief paragraph at the beginning that details the history of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site; 468 nuclear explosions were carried out there, and that Kyrgyzstan born Hamid Ismailov is exiled from Uzbekistan. As you continue to read, another pertinent truth of sorts emerges.

They add another arc to this self-conscious, fable-esque novella (exquisitely translated by Andrew Bromfeld) that is as much a story as it is a mediation on the art ofnarrative and story-telling. An immediate referential opening sets this in motion with the opening line; ‘The story began in the most prosaic fashion possible.’ Once upon a time there was a story, another story in the world of stories. Our principle, first-person narrator is on a train journey. Into his fourth day on the train a ‘ten or twelve year old boy’ appears in the carriage playing Brahms on his violin. Speaking to him it transpires that the boy is a twenty-seven year old man who sets out to tell his story.

Yerzhan was born in a barren outlet on the East Kazakhstan Railway line that consists of two families; Yerzhan’s and his childhood love Aisulu’s family. Nobody seems to know how Yerzhan was conceived – nobody knows his father, no-one perhaps ‘except God’, which summons Granny Sholpan to invent stories about his arrival. but he was found in ‘The Zone’, which is also where Uncle Shaken works carrying out nuclear tests. Intermittent booms, which are test bombs (on most occassions) persist through the story, like all the other noises that awaken Yerzhan, like the ear for the violin he has that awakens the narrator to him. He associates a gadfly ‘that became the droning word: Zone…And the word began buzzing around in the child’s imagination’. The fly gets stuck in Yerzan’s dreams, and with it so does his fear of the Zone. The transfer of language to noise to crystallized experience.

One day Yerzhan is finally taken to the zone that torments his childhood, “and the gullies and ravines brought them to the zone that had tormented Yerzhan’s boyish curiosity like a gadfly for all these years”. This is Uncle Shaken’s workplace and the nuclear testing site is being used in case of an imminent war with America, where the point is constantly battered home by patriotic Shaken. This is the moment Yerzhan arrives in the zone “Has Aisulu seen this?” he asked Uncle Shaken fearfully. The man shook his head. ‘If we don’t simply catch up with the americans and then overtake them,’ he added in his usual manner, ‘the whole world will look like this’. The prophetic visions of war resemble the earth’s terminus, but Shaken, is unshaken in his duty to serve the government by working at the site.

One blast, distinctly more powerful than the others interrupts school lessons that Yerzhan and Aisulu are in. As a result, their class is taken on a school trip to where Shaken works and they are explained about Nuclear testing site. Finally toward the evening they are shown, what the novella lends it’s title to, the dead lake; a crater as a result of a bomb filled with unhealthy, unnatural water. In a daring moment of bravado by Yerzhan, which it is difficult to surmise why he does it, he takes off his shirt and walks into the lake. It isn’t just dead in appearance, but it is dead in the sense that it kills any kind of growth in Yerzhan (there is a vicious irony when Yerzhan is taken to a doctor and told that the growth zones in his body are dead) and why the narrator knows Yerzhan as the dwarfed talented violin player.

This pivotal moment is also where Ismailov’s writing is showcased. It is in these moments that the complex political nature of the test site is laid out for the school children in it’s basic terms, and the ‘chain reaction’ of the events that would set in motion a world war, and where they are expected to abide by it.The children are shown a video about nuclear war, but how Yerzhan cannot understand the greater meaning of the demonstration , ”They were shown a film about the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some of the children had never watched a film before and the rustling of the sound and the quick scene changes frightened them and they cried”. Brilliant writing of the highest quality: The blend of irony with an overwhelming, belated sadness.

The implications of Yerzhan’s stumped growth as he watches other children and Aisulu grow up quite literally as Yerzhan does not, retaining the consciousness of an older person but not fulfilling it in height. It’s a question that not only Yerzhan deals with, but is enveloped in the greater one that the likes of Uncle Shaken are trying to answer and justify in their pursuit of America. It is one that has particular resonance at the moment, and one that Ismailov has commented on, with the Winter Olympics in Russia. If the financial crash has taught us anything it has taught us nothing. Instead it has strengthened leaders egotism on the world stage. They are more willing to show that cost does not effect their treasuries, and at the same time more than willing to gloss over the clear fact, denies those who really need the money. The Winter Olympics has cost Russia £30 billion. How much of this will go to the workers, migrants and Russians building these in hideous labour conditions for a paltry sum? Not as much as is likely to go to the corporate companies, and sponsors on all levels of the corruption spectrum. Let us not forget the scandal over LGBT persons rights in Russia in the sense that they don’t have any. Talks of boycotting by other nations are quickly quelled as they go on the pursuit to, once again, strengthen their countries credentials by the pursuit gold medals. They’re all playing the same games on a sporting but also political level. Great Britain for one has an embarrassing presence at Winter games, yet still feel the need to go and compete for the three medals it is aiming for, when a boycott may just show it’s regard, for once, it’s recognition of human value over the egotistical assumption of sporting and national glory. Could we not go 4 year’s without 3 gold medals? We’re all caught up in these games of ideology whether we like it or not as citizens. As is most often in these cases, and as Ismailov openly admits, it is not the elites who pay the price, it is those at the bottom, like in the case of Yerzhan. He is the chain reaction as he admits at one point.  Interchange any world leader saying ‘One day we will take over America’ for Uncle Shaken. And this is not just something that happens to those behind the old iron curtain. This is something all our countries are responsible for, but sport is a great source of monetary capital, a great big advertising vehicle. This is not just something refined to the old iron curtain as the west would have us believe.Britain shoddily treated it’s security staff expecting voluntary work, then giving the best seats to corporate sponsors who failed to show up on most occasions, and Britain has an unrelenting belief in itself as a powerful nation. And look at the continuing scandal of IDS: Iain Duncan-Smith.

Towards the end, Ismailov finds time to ask metafictional questions in a more blatant manner, as the first person narrators intrusion becomes problematic. There are stories within stories in here, but they all seem to emanate when characters get bored, like the narrator on the long train journey. And to return to that opening, ‘the story began in the most prosaic fashion possible’; is that not just the modern day debunking of ‘Once upon a time’? It’s the stories that we tell ourselves of our own existence but also the stories that nations tell themselves, and we’re all expected to go with it and be patriotic citizens. The overwhelming point Ismailov seems to be getting across then is to deconstruct these stories, the ‘beautiful lies’ as Althusser might call it, and uncover real truth’s behind narratives. This is why writers like Ismailov are exiled from nations, because the governments cannot bear these truths being exposed.  Ismailov’s writing draws parallels with that other famous exile, Salman Rushdie.

In this fable of sorts, the moral if we are to assume one is clear: the cost of human life is so often less regarded than the cost of pursuing and building our nations. But if Ismailov is demonstrating to us the strength of storytelling, he has done it an almost implausible manner; maybe a lot of it is down to the timing of this review, but the overriding moral of it is timeless.

All this in the novella. But this is not a championing, or surpassing of one form over the other, it is rather just the brilliant and powerful art of fiction In whatever length or form and it’s ability to illuminate truth’s like no other medium can. These really are beautiful lies.

If you’re wanting justification for novels, stories and writers in the modern day technological, capitalist world, here is one of them.

The Dead Lake (122pp) by Hamid Ismailov, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield is published by Peirene Press (£12.00 rrp) and is released on the 27th February 2014.  Hamid Ismailov is also the BBC’s Writer in Residence and works for the World Service.

Thank you to Peirene Press for providing a review copy.


The afterparty: Black Vodka, a review

‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’ is one of Iris Murdoch’s pseudo-philosophising quotes, and at the moment we are emerging from the commercial wreckage of HMS Man Booker. Older works and future works will be updated so that bookshop shelves will be interspersed with by the Man Booker shortlisted author…, to which Deborah Levy’s next work is no exception. Her new work Black Vodka, follows up the middle class holiday gone wrong Swimming Home, with a collection of short stories that carries the themes of her earlier works. And to return to that Murdoch quip, the wreck of future works as well.

Who was the joke on at the Booker prize? A prize that reeks of middle class values, shortlisting a very middle class novel in Swimming Home, which was in itself swiping at the flooding in the market of the middle class novel. But there’s no need to be so cynical because Black Vodka is superlatively good. It is a collection of 10 stories packed into 126 pages. This doesn’t allow for much narrative, instead they are like postmodern remnants of ideas, ‘sketches’, with a narrative overture. Levy’s earlier works were reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, and Ali Smith, not as activist as the first and not as steady as the latter. With her short stories though, there is some Angela Carter style mixing of the fable and contemporary and a sly reference to a cavalier of the short story, John Cheever, for those who can spot it.

In Black Vodka, Levy’s primary concern is with the male and female. Black Vodka is a mediation of what these terms mean, because psychology particularly, has essentially reduced itself to a modern day Cartesian philosophy. Levy is a progressive, as it is best to understand this by rightly splitting the terms gender and sex. Sex is the biology. Gender is a much more complicated construction through the discourse of the society’s inhabitants, a melting pot of cultures and ideals. For this reason, we are constantly observing the man and woman playing opposite each other as they must battle the physical restrictions of their sex and also the physical restrictions of their location. It is “Vienna” the third, and the most triumphant that does this, which she tried to explain in her novel Billy & Girl. Levy thrives on the ambiguity and unease it creates for her readers constantly challenging our stereotypes. As it opens Marget is testing her new microwave in front of her husband (the all too simple, generic husband wife situation) as her husband “nods as if he is a secretary taking notes from an inscrutable Executive Director who wears purple lipstick to frighten the more timid of staff”. roles reversed, because stereotyping like our physical location is something we can become stuck in as the next passage shows as her husband considers his wife “She is middle europe he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria”, showing the machinations of the mind from the definitive security of this to the what his could mean “She is someone else’s property. He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps”. This defines the collection. The gender dichotomy is most powerfully challenged in the ironically titled Cave Girl, the 6th story,when Cass tells her brother she wants a sex change, not into a man, but into a new woman. It is the woman that all the men want including her brother, the one that the advertisers create and make us desire, psychological plastic surgery.

In “Pillow Talk” Ella and Pavel embrace each other in a hazy, dreamy Barcelona. Here, the characters must also battle, not just with the physical and metaphysical aspects of gender, but also their cultures. Pavel has to leave Ella to go to Dublin for a job interview, where he succumbs to the desires of another woman (a recurring male trait). Dublin becomes taboo, and Pavel with his two passports and Ella, born in Jamaica with a British passport are restricted by the physical boundaries of love ‘Surname. Given names. Nationality. Date of Birth. Sex. Place of birth. Date of issue. Date of Expiry’ The soulless questions andlegal requirements, read like questions of compatability on a dating website . Like in “Roma” the penultimate tale, they, like most of the other characters, they are tourists, but at what costs? The husband and wife in this story rarely interact instead they are cultural tourists and tourists of their own marriage,
“She stares into the salt lagoon. A stork stands in the mud. And another. Her husband takes a photograph of the two stalks”.
It is emphatic in saying that we have the desire to travel but we can easily become tourists of our own lives watching our downfalls enacting roles that we think we have to play. In the second story “Shining a Light” the protagonist is thrown in to familiar Levy disorientation when she loses her baggage in Prague airport where the baggage carousel is a ‘grey river’. Alice in a Carter-esque self discovery loses her western burdens.

The question of the physical and the metaphysical is most ironically employed in Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, which is told in twelve numbered aphorisitic like sections. Its emphasis is on the cliché of the heart and its association with love, as Simon gives into his ‘hearts’ desires all too easily In a mocking of the arbitrary organ that we associate love with “Simon’s heart has two chambers: the upper and the lower chambers. Blood flows between these chambers. Simon Tegala’s heart is the size of a fist” as Levy reduces the heart of all its benign metaphysical associations.

“Placing a call” is her most experimental in style, which doesn’t add much apart from some poetic muscle flexing. And then Stardust Nation, pretentiously titled, and it stands out on its own too much, too political. Its an indictment on the advertising industry again and a slight criticism on mental health treatment and psychoanalysis. Nikos gets an unsettling phone call from his colleague Tom,sSlowly, it emerges that they are very similar, both beaten as children by their fathers, and the inevitable becomes obvious quickly as the Nikos ‘guard dog sister’ makes it a Freudian triumvirate. There is still some rewards to be taken from it though but to pack something as strong into 15 pages diminishes its impact.

The title piece Black Vodka is another one of those that can stand alone in its own right, but this time with more success. It is slightly unusual to open with the ‘main piece’, but it works. It culminates everything in the collection in a fairly linear narrative, as Ali working in an advertising agency trying to promote Vodka Noir. It is very European, in scope and style. Ali is introduced as having a hump on his back, alluding to Victor Hugo’s most famous creation. When Ali is doing a sales pitch he notices a woman in the crowd studying him intently drawing “A picture of a naked hunchbacked man, with every single organ of his body labelled. Underneath her rather too accurate portrait should I be flattered she imagined me naked) she’d scribbled two words: Homo Sapiens”. It encapsulates Levy’s main gripe about the western, consumerist world, so obsessed with perfection This is what makes us human, the trying and failing to be perfect.

In a revolving way, the first story could easily be the last, if it wasn’t for its title, “A better way to live”. Joe is contemplating life, life In the broadest of terms the life of the 20th century. When he lost his mother the loving role was taken over by Elisa, both of them united by orphanage. Joe is allowed to see history through his mother’s stories “Benito Mussolini smiling in a hat with an eagle on it, the wall street crash…Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus in the USA the day the buses were no longer separated”. When you think you have lost that love, you find it in the most unlikely of places. The orphanage is a refuge of lost love. Two are orphans of the 20th century, two humans, too human dealing with the hangover of a binge by others by before them.

This is the Booker after party, the hangover after the award and Christmas sales, and now is not the easiest time to be selling books. It is all about hardcore sales now. Good reads out of the window to some extent. They want your money, which is why the Booker prize is such bountiful enterprise as the publishers with Booker writers in their roster look to capitalise on the popularity. Which is nice that Black Vodka isn’t diluted Levy, it is a strong cocktail conjured by Levy, and an addictive one.This is the wreckage

The poison is strong.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy is out now published by And Other Stories in paperback.  This review copy was provided by Necessary Fiction.

The Zoo in The Cave

Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thin, unassuming work encompassed in a vast, elusive corpus of writing by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s 160 pages or so, depending on which edition you have, but it is a deceptively intense and puzzling book. The preface advises that this is not a book to be read in several sittings, instead, ‘we should like the reader to dip into these pages at random, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope’. Humans have evolved to perceive colour. Like a kaleidoscope and the visual experience you get from it, it is to our visual system, an intensive and inclusive experience not withheld for a long time and although as visually pleasing as a kaleidescope is, it tells us vast things about the capacities of the human visual system. Imaginary Beings could be the Kaleidoscope of the human psyche.

Within, Borges captures creatures (I use the term ‘creature’ sparingly) well known and not so well known, from ‘The Unicorn’ to ‘The A Bau A Qu’. They all have varying qualities and characteristics, some more intelligent and less brutish than others, or some like ‘The Fairies’ which are said to ‘meddle magically in human affairs…the most numerous, the most beautiful and the most memorable of the minor supernatural beings’. They also come from a variety of sources. Typically some are steeped in a fable, deep cultural history and tradition and others more recent like the brief passage from ‘An Animal Imagined By Kafka’ or the ‘Cheshire Cat from C.S.Lewis’. Other notable names are included as well from Seneca, Pope, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Most notably however is Plato, who’s name appears several times (the index includes 6 page references; Aristotle has 5, Dante has 11).

Plato’s name resonates though, alongside that of Borges’ but it evoked not just Plato’s allegory, but Borges’ penchant for using his own writing as playing within the confines of ancient and philosophical history. The Allegory of The Cave though famously describes a group of people who have lived inside a cave for the duration of their lives, facing the blank innards of the wall, on which shadows are projected from things and creaters that pass in front of the fire behind them. The shadows are given ‘forms’ and Plato said that these forms or ideas, and bodily sensations, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality.

The poetic nature of the allegory should not distract from the several messages that can be interpreted from it. But, the allegory and Imaginary Beings seem to be on a level with one another, because what is striking about Imaginary Beings is how in the 100 descriptions of the mythical creatures, so physically distinct from the human form, is how much they can tell us about human nature. Initially, it’s the whimsical nature of the story; the forms in the cave and the distorted shadows that the fire casts on the walls; small insects inflated to abnormal size and the inhabitants of the cave making stories and sense of them. The allegory is about life, and the life in the cave is the life in the world, and it is then philosopher who has trouble persuading the people that such a thing exists.

We think of the beings in Imaginary Beings as confabulation and fantastical, but they could tell us more than we than we could potentially imagine about the way the mind works. Plato’s influence on Freud and Western thought shouldn’t be understand, but what they more prosaically share is that their theories on the composition of the human psyche are so ingrained into public perception of psychology, its terms are entered into every day discourse. Any psychologist would tell you otherwise, as Freud theories are so vulgarly outdated in modern academia. The Imaginary Beings questions this as the preface says ‘we are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragons image that fits man’s imagination’. What level of human consciousness allows us to create the image of the dragon?

Let’s compare the two dragons. ‘The Eastern Dragon’  has ‘the ability to assume many shapes…with a head something like a horse…it is customary to picture them with a pearl…the beast is rendered helpless if its pearl is stolen from it….their teeth bones and saliva are all possess medicinal qualities’. Significantly though ‘The Chinese believe in dragons more than any other deities because dragons are frequently seen in the changing formations of the clouds’. ‘The Western Dragon’ alternatively, is described as ‘ a tall standing heavy serpent with claws and wings…belch both fire and smoke…perhaps the best known but also the least known of the fantastic animals. It seems childish to us and usually spoils the stories in which it appears’. Jung also stated the Dragon that it is a reptile and a bird – the elements of the earth and of air. The two dragons are distinctly different and reflect the way the Eastern beings in the book tend to demonstrate a level of morality, where the Western creations are seemingly more sinister and interesting in a way that allows a story to be told about them.

The dragon though is a story, a symbol of culture. Look at the Chinese and the Welsh for instance. They are creations by human culture and ultimately have helped us make sense of it.  Caspar Henderson in his essay for the Guardian states how The ‘Fauna of Mirrors’ foreshadows a series of lectures given by Borges which described his recurring nightmares ‘I am afraid to pull my mask off and afraid to see my real face’ he said. Here we have the power of the creator confronting the real substance of his creatyions. Because that is what they are – imaginary. They are created by a human imagination and are perceived by a human conscience, and as much as they appear fantastical they always have the human element of the creator. The fear or wonder they create is only that of the fear and wonder instigated by the initial human creator.

Imaginary Beings is an exploration in the cave of the human mind. Our fears and demons lurking in our subconscious illuminated by the fire of our waking consciousness, Do we create stories to make sense of this? Of course we do. Narrative guides our life. When we are struggling the daily battle, we turn our hopes and fears into stories based on what we know, and give them endings based on what we already know and what we wish we did know. Henderson, mentioned earlier, claims the book is a shadow of the future. In the era of climate change, the Earth is rapidly heating, doing unspeakable things like altering DNA structure; we could be on the cusp of mass extinction, but what new life forms that this could alter and bring might as well be plucked out of Imaginary Beings, because who genuinely knows. Or are the beasts already here in ourselves?

Caspar Henderson’s essay is available here:

Fire and Forms in the cave