Obviously I picked this book up because I thought I might like it, but I’ve been completely blown away by how much I liked it. Rarely has a slow and meandering book like this been such a page-turner for me (indeed, perhaps this is the first time it’s ever happened). Even though the story is full of sorrow and hopelessness, I found it addictive and enlightening about a country I knew little about, Kazakhstan.
In the main, this is a story about the man-made ecological disaster that is the disappearance of the Aral Sea. The Soviets decided to divert the grand rivers that fed this vast salt-water lake into irrigation canals, to water rice and cotton crops. The shoreline receded, exposing tons of intensely salty sand that blew away in the fierce winds, ruining the farmland that was barely viable in the first place. It would be bad enough if that were the only environmental disaster facing the region, but it’s not: the salty sand is also full of highly toxic waste dumped into those rivers over decades when they still flowed; the nuclear weapon test facility in the east of Kazakhstan has left much of the land saturated with nuclear pollution, causing sky-high rates of birth defects, infant mortality and cancers; and the pesticides and fertilisers smothered over the cotton crops to make them grow at all leech their own toxicity into the environment. This book reads like an account of the apocalypse: the ocean’s fish dying, the people all living with varying degrees of poison in their system, domesticated animals going wild and running off with feral packs, vicious sandstorms battering the fools still living around the sea…
The ongoing theme of this book is “man” thinking he knows better than nature, and as such destroying everything. The book does have religious overtones to it, with one of the main characters, Nasyr, being a mullah who prays continually to God to save Sinemorye, and wondering in despair whether it is God who has forsaken humanity, or humanity who has forsaken God. But you don’t need to be religious to appreciate this book (I certainly am not); if you respect nature, and shudder in horror at how governments and corporations around the world wreak immense environmental destruction that would take nature thousands of years to recover from even if the damage wasn’t being continually compounded on, this book will make an impact on you regardless.
The other running theme that I found interesting was the criticism of the Soviet authorities. Nasyr’s son, Kakharman, begins the book as a low-ranking bureaucrat whose overriding goal is to convince the head honchos in Moscow to stop destroying the Aral Sea. There are other characters, too, like the scientist Slavikov and his son Igor, who share this goal. But the party apparatus is so stuffed full of careerists that would rather destroy entire ecosystems than admit to any mistakes, that this effort is basically futile. The book also talks about, or at least mentions, many of the horrific things that happened under Stalin’s rule, like the Holodomor (where millions died in a man-made famine) and the Great Purge (where a similarly huge number were executed or sent to gulags, and since the authorities considered “criminality” to be hereditary, even children were mistreated in orphanages as “enemies of the state”). There are a number of flashbacks into the lives of minor characters to explore their lives during these times, and these passages are raw and moving. Despite a single brief section where America is described as like so amazing, they would never harm the environment! (bahaha, yeah ok) the criticism largely does not come from a place of, “and this is why the FREE MARKET and American imperialism are so great!” like Western criticisms of the USSR mostly do – instead it is with sympathy for the ordinary person, and especially the colonised person, as Kazakhs were by Russians. It’s a very well-written book.
There are some reasons why you may not enjoy this book – it is quite long and mostly humourless, and it’s not exactly a book where the animals are having a good time (although, as someone who hates animal cruelty and suffering in books, I wasn’t “triggered” by this one – there’s no real cruelty, although Kazakh society is definitely not vegetarian, and it’s all of nature suffering here, not only the animals). The Kindle version seems bugged, and thinks the entire last 25% of the book is page 483, so be prepared for a book with a real length of ~600 pages or so. But man, what an entrancing 600 pages.