How do you tell the story of a remote injustice to a jaded world?
You could make a documentary, or interview the survivors and write a 15,000-word magazine exposé. You could petition the authorities to commission an official enquiry, and wait a decade or two for the results. Hamid Ismailov chose to write a lyrical literary fairytale about a boy who swam in a forbidden lake and never grew up.
The injustice in question is the detonation of 468 nuclear bombs in four decades of testing at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Soviet Kazakhstan, unleashing a total of 2,500 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb on the local population.
If I tell you the bare bones of the story, it’ll sound melodramatic. A young, preternaturally gifted musician is exposed to radiation, killing not only his dreams of the conservatoire but also his planned future with his childhood sweetheart, and ends up as a yoghurt vendor on the trains across the steppes.
But Ismailov doesn’t tell it that way at all. The musician, Yerzhan, is a young boy at a remote way station in the Kazakh steppes, and although his story is told in the third person, we see the world through a young boy’s eyes. He hears talk about “the Zone” nearby, but doesn’t know what it is. He pictures it as a droning fly buzzing around him, and periodically it makes the whole world shake. Here he is on a train with his grandfather:
Suddenly the shadows in the wagon shifted abruptly, as if pushed aside by the huge hairy legs of the fly on Yerzhan’s nose. A din louder than its buzzing, worse than the rumble of the wagon and the empty metal bread boxes followed, penetrating the eardrums of the men and the boy. The wagon began to dance. The old men disappeared through the open door. The fly made the ground under Yerzhan’s feet spin. Then it dragged him into a rumbling darkness.
They’re taken back home by some men, who give them bread and potatoes as compensation, and Yerzhan never does get to the town of Semey to learn from the master bards. His urine “turned red, as if from shame.”
All of the encounters with the nuclear testing zone are told in this magical way, starting with Yerzhan’s conception, which takes place when his mother chases after a silk scarf caught on the wind. Suddenly the sinking sun soars back into the sky, a roaring wind springs up out of nowhere, and then she sees a creature looking like an alien in a spacesuit standing over her.
The pivotal moment is when he swims in the forbidden lake – a beautiful stretch of perfectly still, bright green water. It’s a childish prank to impress his sweetheart Aisulu, but from that moment on, Yerzhan never grows. By the time we see him selling yoghurt on the train, he’s 27 years old, but looks like a 10-year-old boy.
The concept of the boy who stops growing is reminiscent of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. But whereas Oskar Matzerath chose to stop growing, Yerzhan has that condition imposed on him. He desperately fights against it, trying everything from pull-ups on the door frame and stretching in bed to lying out in the sun all day. He hears that basketball players are tall, so nails a rusty wheel hoop to the wall of the house and spends hours tossing a ball of camel wool through it. His family give him carrots, fish oil, lamb’s livers and an exorcism. But nothing works.
It’s a sad story, but Ismailov doesn’t try to pluck at our heart-strings or hammer home the allegories. He just tells us the story, in sparsely beautiful prose, bringing the world of the remote Kazakh steppe alive in a bizarre, fantastical and yet strangely believable way.