Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Slynx

The Slynx / Tatyana Tolstaya
trans. from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
NY: NYRB, 2007, c2000.
299 p.
Another strange Russian science fiction novel today. This one takes place 200 years after "the Blast", obviously a nuclear war which has caused radiation contamination and various mutations among people, wildlife and flora of all kinds. 

These Consequences are unpredictable; one character has fleshy cockscombs all over her body, one has a tail, others have talons instead of toes. But for the Oldeners, those few who survived the Blast, the Consequence is that they seem to live forever. This is not necessarily a delight. 

This new society is based in small groups gathered around villages named after the Murza in charge. The story's main character is the hapless Benedikt, son of an Oldener who has died from eating bad Firelings. Benedikt has a job transcribing fragments of writing shared by their Murza, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glory-Be. There are a handful of other transcriptionists in his unit, one a beautiful young woman with no apparent Consequences, Olenka. Another is a poor woman covered in waving cockscombs; she's so terrible to look at that nobody pays attention to the fact that she's the smartest one among them. 

Benedikt isn't the brightest but he is handsome and healthy. This despite the general lifestyle of eating mice, beating and maiming one another for fun, and plenty of endurance and misery. Villagers try very hard to avoid any sign of Freethinking; god forbid they draw the attention of the Saniturions who punish anyone with ideas of a better, non-serfdom kind of life, or those who read secret Oldener books. 

And worst of all, to fall under the eye of the Slynx, the mythical creature who lives in the woods and yowls, causing fear and trembling, and will leap from behind and tear out your spine so that you wander as a zombie of sorts until you die. 

But in a sudden upset of his circumstances, Benedikt finds himself a newbie Saniturion himself, with access to hundreds of books. He reads and reads, for escapism from the terrible life they all live, but he never seems to learn anything from his reading. Once he's read something, he doesn't understand that you can read it again, and he can't distinguish between literature and a volume of knitting instruction.

All this reading doesn't improve him, doesn't bring out the light of civilization in his heart; he remains the same simpleton he always was, just with more power. And others who claim to want to defend Art are just the same. 

Tolstaya has a lot to say about "What is Art?", just like her great grand-uncle Leo Tolstoy. Her take on it all is a bit different however. She creates an absurdist setting that is both heavily Russian and a return to the dark ages, in which remnants of the old world exist but are not understood by the new generations. Books, language, art, memory, civilization itself, are all questioned as to their value and their staying power. 

The language in the book is slightly off; Benedikt recalls his mother mourning for the days of "deportment stores" or "bootiks". I don't envy the translator her job with this one! The book just keeps moving from one surreal setting to the next, and Benedikt never seems to learn anything, even with the attempted guidance of Oldener Nikita, the Stoker (who provides fire to the village). 

And the Slynx itself? Benedikt believes that he feels the eye of the Slynx on him from time to time; he tries to describe the feeling in clumsy words but it's basically when an existential crisis is threatening, something he won't let develop but instead does something violent to avoid. I think the Slynx is that existential fear, which the Murzas have personified to terrorize those who might be tempted to think about any meaning in life or how things might be made better for the peasants. It's a society that depends on most of the population being miserable toilers in order to benefit a few at the top; it seems humanity never changes, even when they are sprouting mutations and Consequences! 

This was a super weird book, but one I like a lot for its frantic, topsy-turvy style. I was surprised by the sudden emphasis on books halfway through, but found so much humour, intellectual & literary references, and inventiveness in it. It's violent and terrible but also uncanny and unsettling with very black humour to leaven it all. Definitely an odd but memorable read. 


  1. Never heard of this one and it sure sounds interesting, if very strange.

  2. Thanks for this! This is one I've been curious about, but haven't read. I'll have to check it out.

    1. If you're in the mood for something a bit unusual you might like it. You have to be ready to just go with the story ;)

  3. I've read and loved her shorter works, but this does sound good!

    1. I have two story collections by her to read next.


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