Kudos to Peirene Press for continuing to find intriguing and unusual works to translate, from Europe and just beyond Europe. In this case, it’s by a writer from Uzbekistan but the action takes place in the steppes of Kazakhstan. The story of a young man is actually the story of the gradual decline of two families, but in fact encapsulates and personalises the entire Cold War history.
This is the second novel in quick succession by an author stemming from the Russian tradition in which the narration is a story within a story, told by a musician during one of those endless Russian railway journeys. The narrator comes across a child busker on a train and is amazed by his skills playing the violin. He then discovers that the musician, Yershan, is in fact a fully grown man, who still looks like a boy, and is intrigued to find out how he got like this. Yershan is happy to oblige, but has his own roundabout, unhurried way of telling the tale.
He talks about the harsh but idyllic childhood in an isolated community (formed of just two extended families) in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor in the Kazakh steppes. He talks about riding camels or donkeys to school, the strange beauty of the vast and endless expanses, the ominous rumblings beneath the earth which terrify all the animals. Above all, he talks about the love of his life, the little girl Aisulu that he grew up with. In a fit of boyish bravado, on a school trip to the nuclear reactor, he dives into a radioactive lake to impress her and all his other classmates. Since then, he stopped growing and had to watch his beloved Aisulu turn into a tall shapely woman, one he fears would never look at him. In the process of recounting his own great sorrow, he reveals not only his secret but also the saga of two families destroyed by silence, unspeakable loves, death and destruction, resilience and fortitude.
It took me a few pages to get into the story. The myths and legends told by the grandmothers seemed confusing at first – all those strange names and complicated family ties. But then the poetry of the landscape and the country childhood took over. It is a very short, yet remarkable and moving read. A lyrical book about a very difficult period in history, with the almost parody-like refrain of Uncle Shaken ‘We shall overtake the Americans!’
The chilling factual introduction to the story says it all:
Between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out… The aggregate yield of the nuclear devices tested… exceeded by a factor of 2,500 the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans in 1945.