In “The Dead Wander in the Desert,” we see the final, painful days of the Soviet Union, juxtaposed with the final, painful days of the Aral Sea, as a once-bountiful land dries up and turns to a poisonous, salt-filled desert. The characters in the book fight to preserve the sea, but in vain: the central planners in Alma Ata (present-day Almaty) and Moscow refuse to undam the rivers running into it, dooming it and all who live in or by it to destruction.
The desiccation of the Aral Sea has been named one of the greatest natural disasters of the 20th century. In the past decade the water levels in one of its few remaining pools have been raised, but it is still far from revived. At the same time, it has received much less attention than more spectacular disasters than Chernobyl. In part that’s probably because it happened out in Central Asia and primarily affected Central Asians, not Europeans. And in part that’s because it’s much less exciting than something like a nuclear meltdown. The destruction of the Aral Sea was the predictable result of specific policies, and took place over decades. There was no giant explosion, just a day-by-day incremental worsening of the problem, until one day the land was no longer habitable. Sound familiar?
“The Dead Wander in the Desert” is worth reading for its subject matter alone: it’s both a memorial to a terrible disaster, and a clear warning bell of the danger of other disasters that are bearing down on the entire planet. It has a clear and unambiguous environmental message that some readers might find overbearing from an artistic point of view, but can’t help but get its (extremely urgent) point across.
It’s also worth reading as a window into a culture that most Western readers are likely to know little or nothing about. As well as an elegiac celebration of the Aral Sea in its final days, it’s also a celebration of Kazakh culture. Western readers of the English-language translation are likely to find the culture simultaneously fascinating and off-putting: the book extolls both the close-knit Kazakh community around the sea and its close relationship with the land, and less attractive features of it such as animal sacrifice and the subjugation of women. As with other (post)-Soviet cultures, from a Western perspective there are no unmitigated good guys here. The Kazakhs were genuinely exploited and oppressed, and their culture almost destroyed along with their natural environment, by the Soviet regime. Some parts of the culture the book’s characters are trying so hard to preserve probably do need to be tossed out into the dustbin of history. “The Dead Wander in the Desert” does not provide any answers to this thorny dilemma, but it would serve as an excellent jumping-off point for discussion in a class on environmental or post-colonial fiction.
Structurally and stylistically, the book is interesting but challenging. It follows along the events of perestroika more or less chronologically, but with multiple points of view and frequent flashbacks and digressions. This helps give it its epic breadth, depth, and feel, but requires attention from the reader to follow. It also has a tinge of magic realism mixed in with its purely realist accounting of perestroika and the world events surrounding it. It’s not something to pick up as a piece of light, escapist reading. As with the subject matter, though, it would work beautifully as an assigned reading for a college-level class or book club that tackles serious topics and “big” novels.
The translation is well done, and the numerous end notes explaining cultural and historical events, as well as the Kazakh and Russian words that are left untranslated, will be very helpful for readers unfamiliar with perestroika, the USSR, or Kazakh culture.
“The Dead Wander in the Desert” is not an easy read, but it *is* a “big” novel in the Russian/Soviet tradition. Recommended for serious readers of literature in translation, especially Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet literature, and for readers of environmental and colonial/post-colonial fiction.
My thanks to NetGalley and Amazon Crossing for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.