Glen James Brown reviews The Lake by Bianca Bellová, a Czech novel translated by Alex Zucker which contemplates the existential questions surrounding the natural world’s devastation.
Motherless Nami grows up in an isolated fishing village on the edge of a vast lake somewhere in the hinterlands of what might have once been the USSR. There is little adherence to political dogma, instead the residents believe in the Spirt of the Lake—an entity ruling over their lives and livelihoods—only the lake is shrinking and becoming increasingly poisonous. The Spirit has been angered in some way, but how? In Bianca Bellová’s EU-Prize for Literature-winning novel, Nami sets out across this haunted water to find his missing mother, and perhaps answers that will save them all from extinction.
Nami’s search takes him into a society on the brink of collapse. He works brutalising jobs in factories alongside people rapidly losing their capacity for humanity. It’s a world of filthy bunkhouses, brothels, and corrosive chemicals which scour away the lie of our species’ progress. Horrors pile up—a plague of locust descends on a freshly-asphalted road and die in their tens of thousands, stuck to the tar. Elsewhere, a baby is born with a third hand sticking out of its chest. But are these events the work of a vengeful Lake Spirit, or simply the result of our damaged and poisoned environment?
The novel wallows in this poison; the smells and tastes and sensations of the toxic climate vividly described. Nami is constantly breaking out in rashes, fevers, vomiting and fainting fits as he moves along its blasted shores in search of his mother. At times characters threaten to cease being human entirely. Bellová frequently blurs the boundaries of the animal and human worlds—Nami spends months locked in a chicken coop, and is drawn to a baboon in the city’s park who seems happy to be caged because it protects him from the terrors of the outside world. Later, Nami ends up on an island which used to be a Russian bio-weapon research station, as part of a team tasked with killing the animals before the receding lake allows them to swim to the mainland. They find the creatures uninfected and living in peace, and Nami witnesses the men drunkenly, gleefully slaughter them. Each cruelty drives the wedge deeper between Nami and the world. He begins to think of himself as ‘Robinson’—adrift from humanity—and the parallels between a Cruso or a Gulliver are deliberate as we follow Nami through an increasingly alien landscape. Indeed, the Lake’s location doesn’t quite correspond to anywhere on Earth, the geography as slippery as time itself. As the story progresses, The Lake feels less like it takes place in a post-USSR past than it does a post-apocalyptic future of complete climate collapse. Nami’s country might be fiction, but its implications are terrifyingly real.
This is the greatest mystery at the heart of Bellová’s mercurial novel. We have made a mortal enemy of Nature, so is the Spirit of the Lake shrinking to punish us for all we have done to it? Or is it afraid of us? Dying or already dead? And what does that mean for our survival as a species? Bellová doesn’t give us any easy answers. There aren’t any easy answers to give.
Bianca Bellova will be interviewed by Glen James Brown at the Czech Embassy London 7 pm 19th May 26 – 30 Kensington Palace Gardens London W8 4QY.
The Lake by Bianca Bellová is available via Parthian.