It is tempting to label Rollan Seisenbayev’s The Dead Wander in the Desert as an early example of what has now been come to be known as “cli-fi” (“climate fiction”): the book’s central motif, after all, is the human-engineered collapse of the Aral Sea. Given its Soviet provenance and relatively early date—it was first published in in the final years of the Soviet Union—one might even find parallels with the role played by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian We in a literary tradition that ultimately led to George Orwell.
But that might be to inaccurately pigeonhole what is a rare example of a Central Asian novel in translation and the Kazakh author’s English-language debut. In an afterword, Russo-Korean writer Anatoli Kim calls it an “existentialistic folk epic”. I thought I could discern in it echoes of Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don which also tells of the death of a traditional way of life and independent traditions under the pressure of centralizing modernity.
With a Tolstoyan array of characters, the novel seems very Russian.
Despite an almost Tolstoyan array of characters, The Dead Wander in the Desert focuses on just two: the fisherman turned mullah Nasyr and his son Kakharman who hail from the (apparently fictional) village of Karaoi in Sinemorye along the receding shore of the northern part of the Aral Sea. Both Nasyr and his son are accomplished and, at least at times, socially and politically influential, occasionally as far away as Moscow. Kakharman is turfed out of his government administrative position for opposing Moscow’s plans for the region: dams, canals, irrigation, etc., the net effect of which is to draw water out of the sea. The Aral did indeed shrink dramatically, leaving seaside villages and beached shipping vessels tens of kilometers from the shoreline and destroying the fisheries. Kakharman never quite recovers his bearings. Nasyr grows old while watching the sea—and his village—die.
There are many political messages in the novel: it is an indictment not so much of the Soviet Union per se but of the way it functioned; it is also a call for Kazakh social, cultural and linguistic solidarity. Seisenbayev litters the book with newspaper headlines from around the world which not just place the book in time (the 1980s) but also make it clear that the bureaucratic emphasis on (so-called) progress and development over the well-being of individuals is not limited to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, as it then was.
The book is populated with saiga antelope, wild horses, ravenous seagulls, wolves, sturgeon and giant catfish.
In its length (some 450 pages), wide cast of characters and tendency for characters to engage extensive philosophical discussion and introspection, the novel seems very Russian. One passage of dialogue goes
“Who, in your opinion, Kakharman, could be considered to be an intellectual now? What is an intellectual?”
“I guess it’s anyone who has a higher education.”
“And you’re right, my friend! An intellectual is a modest and cultured man with a sharp mind. Yet in our county, the so-called intellectual class contains millions of people. Just think about it! It’s a whole army! But if there are so many intellectuals in the country, how could it sink to its current state? I think, Kakharman Nasyrovich, that an intellectual, most of all, is a conscientious man, a citizen of his country!”
Yet there are also many instances of what might be considered “magic realism”: sentient giant catfish, traditional fables which intrude into contemporary reality, visitations from the dead, communicative dreams and the like. This is not to suggest that Seisenbayev had been reading Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende (although there are so many deliberate literary references and allusions, it would not be surprising if he had) and been influenced by either, for there are more than enough traditional storytelling traditions for him to have drawn inspiration from.
The book is populated with saiga antelope, wild horses, ravenous seagulls, wolves, sturgeon large enough to attack boats as well as the assorted domestic animals. But politics aside, it is Seisenbayev’s handling of essentially domestic scenes—of elderly couples taking care of each other, the kindnesses that keep isolated communities ticking over, marriages and deaths—that keep the pages turning. Seisenbayev may be a political writer, an existentialist, a proponent of Kazakh identity, values and literature, but he is evidently also a humanist.
The novel was written with an independent Kazakhstan just around the corner.
The Dead Wander in the Desert ironically seems to have been written in Russian; it was translated from Russian and if there was an original version in Kazakh, I haven’t found a record of it. That is it perhaps hardly surprising: Indian writers have often found themselves writing in English.
It is impossible to divorce The Dead Wander in the Desert from its context: it was written with the USSR in its last days, and as an independent Kazakhstan (in which author reportedly played a part) was just around the corner if not, perhaps, quite yet visible. The novel occasionally trips over this perspective: Seisenbayev has a visiting American scientist say, apparently to be taken at face value:
We proclaimed the Buffalo River a national reserve. No one would even think damming it or reversing its flow… In America, we have one-third of our lands under public control. The political sympathies of Congress may change, but it always stays on nature’s side because Congress will never go against the nation, and it will not risk losing the nation’s trust.
Even in the 1980s, the idea that the American Congress was on nature’s side would have been met with a smirk. Now, it elicits a groan.
Yet the complete catastrophe that book prophesied did not come to pass: independent Kazakhstan seems to have found itself, while its part of the Aral Sea staged at least a partial recovery. Seisenbayev didn’t let Nasyr or his fellow villagers live long enough to see it.
A critical analysis might find the novel rather too long, question whether there might be too much explicit philosophizing, and ask whether Nasyr and Kakharman really would have had the extensive set of contacts Seisenbayev grants them—but while immersed in the flow of the prose (in a very readable translation by John Farndon and Olga Nakston), these potential drawbacks—as in many Russian novels—never quite seem to matter. The Dead Wander in the Desert is grim, but saved by its humanity; the novel is important, but leavens its gravity with the humility of its protagonists.