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By Tatyana Tolstaya / Translated by Jamey Gambrell
NYRB Classics / ISBN: 1590171969
Ah, those Russian writers -- those crazy, drunken, angst-filled, delightful Russian writers! Mention the phrase "Russian literature" to most Americans, and you're likely to see the same mental images appear again and again; the dense books, the heavy symbolism, the perverse dark humor, and of course the national introspection, always the national introspection, as inherent a part of Russian culture as monster-truck rallies are here in the US. And so it is with Tatyana Tolstaya's blackly funny The Slynx, which has quite the long history behind it: started in 1986 while Russia was still a Soviet state, not finished until 2000 under the equally absurdist Putin administration, now newly reprinted in English form by the publishing wing of the New York Review of Books, not to be confused of course with the 2003 hardback English edition by Houghton Mifflin, which is technically the version that was read for this review. Whew!
And indeed, if you're a fan of Russian literature, The Slynx is sure not to disappoint; after all, Tolstaya is no less than the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy himself, not to mention one of the most famous intellectuals in contemporary Russia right now because of her popular television interview show "The School for Scandal." Set 200 years in the future, the novel is basically a farce on modern politics masquerading as a dystopian science-fiction story, a tale in which a mysterious event from the past known only as "the Blast" has rendered the city of Moscow back into a peasant-village-like state, with most of its citizens having no recollection of a civilized past and no idea how to recreate such a thing even if they wanted. It's a world where people have literally forgotten how to make fire, yet have somehow retained all the red-tape of the old Soviet bureaucracy; a place where mice have become the national currency, a place where people stand in line for hours for no reason at all, to receive nothing at all, because "that's the way government works."
Throughout the novel we follow one of these "golubchiks" in detail, Benedikt the Decree Copying Man, whose job is to hand-copy the purloined works of their current leader (Fyodor Kuzmich Glorybe), who in typical style has re-named the city after himself, and lives in the crumbling remains of Red Square. And in fact as we follow the travails of our mentally challenged hero, we discover that a surprisingly large amount of 20th-century Russian life still remains in post-apocalyptic Moscow, only twisted now into black-comedy proportions, and with the people following these dictates through a combination of superstitious fear and just plain ignorance; how the KGB, for example, are now known as the "Saniturions," traveling the city in sleighs while wearing hooded red robes, confiscating forbidden books from average citizens with a weapon that's curiously sickle-like.
In fact, this is one of the most delightful things about The Slynx, is in all the ways modern Russia has been twisted and perverted in this future vision, and special credit needs to be given to translator Jamey Gambrell for the rich English wordplays on display: to cite just one example, how the "degenerates" of our modern times, those in a post-Soviet world who ignorantly long for the old Soviet days, have literally become their own species in the future known as "Degenerators," mostly beasts of burden who are in charge of pulling the sleighs of the upper class, but during their time off still stand around the stables smoking cigarettes and bitching about the good ol' days. The book is full of such sly jabs at contemporary Russian life -- of the old "moozeeums" that are now hated and feared by the general populace, of the genetic mutations each person has on display and are simply known as their "Consequence."
But then again, this attention to detail and history has its flipside as well, at least to American readers, in that many of the references are to things most Westerners have no clue concerning; I myself, for example, was having to constantly refer to Wikipedia while reading the novel, looking up such people as Alexander Pushkin who play a heavy metaphorical role in the tale, as well as such Moscow landmarks as the Nikitsky Gates. As funny and well-written as The Slynx is, as an American you can't help but to suspect that roughly half the story is going over your head, especially the unending poetry quotes that will not make much sense to most Western readers, but I've been told are highly symbolic and historical quotes from classic Eastern literature that will have most Russians laughing and nodding their heads.
Again, you don't have to be an expert on Russian literature and history to enjoy The Slynx; anyone with even a basic knowledge of what happened there in the '80s and '90s will be able to follow the book's metaphors quite easily, and will find a lot in this self-contained magical-realism volume to be entertained by. It's just that the book doesn't feel complete without this detailed knowledge; that it simply comes off as a funny yet cautionary tale about authoritarian societies and self-involved dissidents, instead of the national sensation that it was in Russia itself when first published seven years ago. It's a book I recommend, but with a caveat; that it's a surprisingly hard read, given that it's written in the form of a twisted fairy tale, and certainly not a beach book unless you're planning on dragging a set of encyclopedias down there as well. For those with a more detailed education in the history of Russian intellectual thought, there are all kinds of subtle and hidden gems buried among the pages of this novel; for the rest of us, though, caution and patience is advised.
Out of 10: