Review: The Lake by Bianca Bellová, translated by Alex Zucker
The Lake (originally titled Jezero in Czech) by Bianca Bellová is the coming-of-age tale of Nami from Boros, a little village located somewhere in the former Soviet empire on the bank of the eponymous lake. The novel is set in four parts, each named after a biological stage in the metamorphosis of an insect.
Nami is an orphan, who does not have a surname, but whose given name could mean ‘famous’ in old Turkish. It is the account of the journey he must take to the city that lies across the lake and back to Boros in order to know and understand himself and the people around him.
Although he runs away from Boros in search of a better life, he soon finds out that the people are just as cruel in the city as those he left behind. He tries to find a friend in a baboon named Majmun (maymun in Turkish means ‘monkey’), caged in a park, who however pays no heed to Nami’s friendly overtures.
In the city – which is left unnamed, but with all the Turkic references and allusions to petrol barons, it could very well be Baku or any other Caucasian town on the shores of the Caspian – he also encounters the Ouroubor people, representing any of the numerous Turkic peoples living in the Steppes, and named after the mythological self-devouring creature.
The first reference to a homeless Ouroubor sleeping on the road at the mercy of natural elements, in fact, brings the image of one such creature to mind with its head and feet joined together to save itself from the exposure.
Surreal and exotic
The harsh, severe Boros described in Bellová’s terse prose could easily be a town straight from the Bible, like ‘The Land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; Toward the sea, beyond the Jordan’, from the Gospel of Matthew, invoked in the final pages of the novel. The severity of realism is effectively broken with the surreal and the exotic.
The village of Boros lies near the Kolos Mountains, where the legendary warriors of the Golden Horde are said to be sleeping, waiting to be awakened by the Great Warrior one day. As a child, Nami wants to be that Great Warrior.
Bellová, who grew up in the last days of Communism, has dexterously used symbolism to leave a greater impact on the reader’s mind. One such symbol is the ubiquitous representation of the Statesman, once a powerful dictator in the standard Soviet fashion, personifying the Soviet empire.
The decline and collapse of Communism is shown through the wholesale departure of Russian soldiers and the collapse of the Statesman’s statues everywhere: he loses his waving arms in Boros and is forcefully brought down in the village of the Ouroubors.
Human folly and cruelty
Hints to an impending doom and disaster are peppered throughout the work: the water is sour and toxic, there is no rain in spring and no snow in winter, the villagers are afflicted with various illnesses, cheeks ‘riddled with burst veins’, cracked feet, and everyone has eczema.
At one point the city is invaded by a swarm of locusts bringing vivid Biblical imagery of the Divine Wrath to mind. These signs of Nature’s reaction towards human folly and cruelty culminate with the angry Spirit of the Lake, sacrifices to whom are constantly made in order to placate and please it. And it is the same Lake that Nami must dive into in order to find himself.
The Lake won the Czech Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award and the EU Prize for Literature in 2017.
It has been translated into over twenty languages, with the English translation by Alex Zucker for Parthian coming out in April 2022 and can be pre-ordered here
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