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The Dead Wander in the Desert

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From Kazakhstan’s most celebrated author comes his powerful and timely English-language debut about a fisherman’s struggle to save the Aral Sea, and its way of life, from man-made ecological disaster. Unfolding on the vast grasslands of the steppes of Kazakhstan before its independence from the USSR, this haunting novel limns the struggles of the world through the eyes of From Kazakhstan’s most celebrated author comes his powerful and timely English-language debut about a fisherman’s struggle to save the Aral Sea, and its way of life, from man-made ecological disaster. Unfolding on the vast grasslands of the steppes of Kazakhstan before its independence from the USSR, this haunting novel limns the struggles of the world through the eyes of Nasyr, a simple fisherman and village elder, and his resolute son, Kakharman. Both father and son confront the terrible future that is coming to the poisoned Aral Sea. Once the fourth-largest lake on earth, it is now an impending environmental catastrophe. Starved of water by grand Soviet agricultural schemes, the sea is drying out, and the land around it is turning into a salt desert. The livelihood of the fishermen who live on its shores is collapsing. Vanishing with the water is a whole way of life. Despite overwhelming odds, Kakharman wages a battle against an indifferent bureaucracy, while Nasyr looks to Allah for guidance. Without the support of neighbors, who have lost hope, Kakharman must travail alone to rescue what literally gives them life. Even as the consequences mount, his quixotic fight proves more daunting. Even the sea itself seems to roil with distress. In the face of despair, the unwavering convictions of these soulful individuals offer hope. Rollan Seisenbayev takes readers on a cautionary, elegiac, and deeply compassionate journey into what it means to be human—to care and to fight against devastating odds. May humankind heed his warning cry.


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From Kazakhstan’s most celebrated author comes his powerful and timely English-language debut about a fisherman’s struggle to save the Aral Sea, and its way of life, from man-made ecological disaster. Unfolding on the vast grasslands of the steppes of Kazakhstan before its independence from the USSR, this haunting novel limns the struggles of the world through the eyes of From Kazakhstan’s most celebrated author comes his powerful and timely English-language debut about a fisherman’s struggle to save the Aral Sea, and its way of life, from man-made ecological disaster. Unfolding on the vast grasslands of the steppes of Kazakhstan before its independence from the USSR, this haunting novel limns the struggles of the world through the eyes of Nasyr, a simple fisherman and village elder, and his resolute son, Kakharman. Both father and son confront the terrible future that is coming to the poisoned Aral Sea. Once the fourth-largest lake on earth, it is now an impending environmental catastrophe. Starved of water by grand Soviet agricultural schemes, the sea is drying out, and the land around it is turning into a salt desert. The livelihood of the fishermen who live on its shores is collapsing. Vanishing with the water is a whole way of life. Despite overwhelming odds, Kakharman wages a battle against an indifferent bureaucracy, while Nasyr looks to Allah for guidance. Without the support of neighbors, who have lost hope, Kakharman must travail alone to rescue what literally gives them life. Even as the consequences mount, his quixotic fight proves more daunting. Even the sea itself seems to roil with distress. In the face of despair, the unwavering convictions of these soulful individuals offer hope. Rollan Seisenbayev takes readers on a cautionary, elegiac, and deeply compassionate journey into what it means to be human—to care and to fight against devastating odds. May humankind heed his warning cry.

44 review for The Dead Wander in the Desert

  1. 4 out of 5

    Colleen

    4 Stars *A elaborate and winding tale of devastation and survival* ARC provided by AmazonCrossing via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Whenever I come close to thinking I’m an informed person, I come across something that reminds me I’m not. In this case, it was the situation Aral Sea. Although The Dead Wander in the Desert is a fictional story, it illuminates a true plight ignored by much of the world. It’s a real-life tragedy created by mankind. This story was originally published 4 Stars *A elaborate and winding tale of devastation and survival* ARC provided by AmazonCrossing via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Whenever I come close to thinking I’m an informed person, I come across something that reminds me I’m not. In this case, it was the situation Aral Sea. Although The Dead Wander in the Desert is a fictional story, it illuminates a true plight ignored by much of the world. It’s a real-life tragedy created by mankind. This story was originally published in 1986 in Russian by Rollan Seisenbayev (who according to the publisher; I couldn’t find much information to verify) is “Kazakhstan’s most celebrated and honored author.” Now this story has finally been translated into English. I am always on the lookout for new authors, and I love reading stories from other countries. Let’s be honest; the publishing industry is too focused on the U.S. and U.K.. So I was excited when I stumbled across The Dead Wander in the Desert. Admittedly, this is not a mainstream book. The writing is influenced by traditional Kazakh oral storytelling. While beautifully written, this book is not straightforward or fast-paced. There are multiple points of view, flashbacks, and points where the narrative seems to meander away from the central story. Some words are translated or defined but others are not, so that may intimidate some readers. I’ll include a content warning for Colonialism, oppression, misogyny, and animal sacrifice. The story is beautiful though. It explores the human condition and the environmental impact made by humans. It raises important questions. While not a light or easy read, The Dead Wander in the Desert is a compelling tale. RATING FACTORS: Ease of Reading: 2 Stars Writing Style: 3 Stars Characters and Character Development: 4 Stars Plot Structure and Development: 4 Stars Level of Captivation: 4 Stars Originality: 4 Stars

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lilisa

    A rare glimpse into Kazakhstan, its culture - steeped in storytelling and magical realism, and the shrinking and drying up of the Aral Sea as a result of the Soviet Union diverting the rivers that flowed into it. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world. Sweeping in scope, the storyline starts off with Nasyr, a fisherman and his wife Korlan, and their son Kakharman. Father and son are determined to battle political, social, and environmental issues to save their beloved waters. A rare glimpse into Kazakhstan, its culture - steeped in storytelling and magical realism, and the shrinking and drying up of the Aral Sea as a result of the Soviet Union diverting the rivers that flowed into it. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world. Sweeping in scope, the storyline starts off with Nasyr, a fisherman and his wife Korlan, and their son Kakharman. Father and son are determined to battle political, social, and environmental issues to save their beloved waters. Set during the Soviet Union days, the story is meandering, going back and forth in time, filled with innumerable characters, stories and sub-stories, some “real,” others steeped in fables or magical realism, and countless travels across villages and cities. The result - a bit of a dizzy reading experience that meandered making concentration key to keeping track of all the threads. It’s worth the read if one can do that and stick with it. There are few books such as this one. It’s definitely a window into Kazakhstan and a part of the world I haven’t read much about and it’s great that the book was translated and shared globally. Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    E.P.

    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 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.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Asteropê

    I saw a segment on this on an episode of "Mysteries of the Abandoned" Someone uploaded it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNDjL...

  5. 4 out of 5

    Steven Baumann

    The Dead Wander in the Desert, Rollan Seisenbayev (John Farndon and Olga Nakston) You can listen to my interview with the translator here: https://www.hourofhistory.com/the-dea... When I first heard about the Seisenbayev’s novel appearing in English I was captivated by the cover art. I imagine most people my age have seen a similar photograph of a boat in the waterless desert that was once the Aral Sea. I have had guests on the Hour of History Podcast talk about other natural disasters such as the The Dead Wander in the Desert, Rollan Seisenbayev (John Farndon and Olga Nakston) You can listen to my interview with the translator here: https://www.hourofhistory.com/the-dea... When I first heard about the Seisenbayev’s novel appearing in English I was captivated by the cover art. I imagine most people my age have seen a similar photograph of a boat in the waterless desert that was once the Aral Sea. I have had guests on the Hour of History Podcast talk about other natural disasters such as the disappearance of the Louisiana coastline and the nuclear fallout of the Chernobyl disaster, but never on the Aral Sea. Reading literature in translation can be hit or miss, which is why I was intrigued by the collaborative approach employed by Farndon and Nakston. Farndon tells the story of Seisenbayev’s shaman telling him to find Farndon for this particular translation in my podcast. I think it ended up as a huge success. This book is one you must spend time with. It is not something to be quickly raided, but rather carefully read - a great autumn read. It has poetry, long dialogues, and diversions through the vast plain that we now call Kazahkstan - a refreshing introduction to a fascinating country people don’t know a whole lot about. As it continued, I felt like I was sitting and listening intently to Seisenbayev tell tales of Kazakhstan long into the night. The story challenges us with political, environmental, and religious questions such as this: “If the officials of Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia had sat at the same table and debated intelligently, they could’ve come to a decision and saved the sea. But now what? Each republic uses the wealth of the earth as if it’s their own property. We are not thinking about our children, not thinking about tomorrow. Everything is today, everything is now, now, now… and as many gold medals for your chest as possible!” Such passages resonate far beyond Kazakhstan. All in all, it is a compelling book that can be taken as an entertaining novel, an introduction to central Asia, an exploration of Kazakhstan, or a unique look at central Asian Islam. It is poetry, politics, and the environment and much more which results in a really pleasant experience for the reader. Thanks to Amazon Crossing for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

    Not always easy to get through--lots of jumps in time, unfamiliar names, and unfamiliar cultures. There's not a lot of "action" and there is a lot of philosophizing about the nature of Allah and Soviet bureaucracy--the two overlords of the people described within these pages. You'll follow an entire community from WWII through the final days of the Soviet Union. There's even some magical realism in the form of giant catfish and mythical sea creatures. But this epic story of an entire community, Not always easy to get through--lots of jumps in time, unfamiliar names, and unfamiliar cultures. There's not a lot of "action" and there is a lot of philosophizing about the nature of Allah and Soviet bureaucracy--the two overlords of the people described within these pages. You'll follow an entire community from WWII through the final days of the Soviet Union. There's even some magical realism in the form of giant catfish and mythical sea creatures. But this epic story of an entire community, slowly destroyed by Soviet policies around the Aral sea, is enraging, heartbreaking, and probably unlike anything else you are likely to read. It's also highly relevant in the time we are living through: the last days of action available to prevent catastrophic climate change. It's hard not to see parallels between the Soviet planners and current climate deniers, working hard to ignore the consequences of their decisions. While I mostly despise Amazon (I know, they own this website) for how they treat human beings, I do appreciate their work translating and publishing translated works so they can reach a wider audience. I don't imagine this was a big money-maker for them, but I am grateful I was able to read it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nina

    Relevant historical and current. Spiritual and the story is tragic a bit sad but must be told and attended to. Surprised such truths came from here obviously people died telling such truths but this got published. Songs, poetry, prayers true real

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cristie Underwood

    Great read. The author wrote a story that was interesting and moved at a pace that kept me engaged. The characters were easy to invest in.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    On my wishlist after this review: https://asianreviewofbooks.com/conten...

  10. 4 out of 5

    Michael DiLuzio

  11. 4 out of 5

    Shir

  12. 5 out of 5

    marilyn

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ann Balcombe

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bryn Hammond

  15. 4 out of 5

    Chantal

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tia

  17. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lucy Meeker

  19. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Murtha

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sanne

  21. 4 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

  22. 4 out of 5

    Minam

  23. 4 out of 5

    Louisa

  24. 5 out of 5

    Joy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rayila

  26. 4 out of 5

    Natalia

  27. 5 out of 5

    Dasha Yermakova

  28. 4 out of 5

    Christine Kenison

  29. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

  30. 5 out of 5

    Heather Warner

  31. 5 out of 5

    Dorothy

  32. 5 out of 5

    Debra Sabah Press

  33. 5 out of 5

    Mary Beth

  34. 5 out of 5

    Steve B.

  35. 5 out of 5

    Uchechukwu

  36. 5 out of 5

    Emily Goenner

  37. 5 out of 5

    Bethani Orcutt-Cross

  38. 5 out of 5

    Janet Barton

  39. 5 out of 5

    Hayley Rae

  40. 4 out of 5

    Brenda Whitmore

  41. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Postma

  42. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  43. 5 out of 5

    Raj

  44. 4 out of 5

    Matt Warren

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