Let’s kick off this Postapocalyptic/Dystopia summer series with a review of Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel The Slynx!
The Slynx takes place 200 years in the future; in a Russian settlement built on the ashes of what was once Moscow, thrown back to a peasant-village-like state by an event known only as “The Blast”. Most citizens have no recollection of a civilized past, and have no means by which to recreate such civilization even if they wanted to. Candles light huts. Scribes record messages from the repressive government’s “all-knowing” leader on birch-bark. Mice have become the national currency. This is a world where people have only recently managed to make fire, yet have somehow retained all the red tape of Soviet bureaucracy. They stand in line for hours for no apparent reason, to receive nothing at all, because “that’s the way government works”. A few fairly typical intellectuals have survived hundreds of years to remember the old days, but the majority of the populace lives in ignorance and fear.
Our protagonist Benedikt, a commoner-scribe with a tail, finds himself overwhelmed with anguish and longing for something – but what that something is lies far beyond the realm of his primitive understanding.
“But in Novemeber the rains start falling and just keep on and on and on – eeeeee!. Everything is murky between heaven and earth, and your soul is clouded over too! The roof leaks if it’s thin; cold and damp blow in through the cracks. You cover the window with rags, you slump closer to the stove, or doze on the stove bed, and something inside cries, and keeps on crying!”
Benedikt finds the answer in books. He devours everything from poetry to craft books, though he never truly manages to differentiate their meanings. Tolstaya declines to say that refinement and a better intellectual life were what Benedikt had been desperate for. In fact, it turns out even the beauty of art can’t win over his predisposition. After Benedikt finishes all the books, more corrupt instincts that were dormant in him rise up, and he is gradually transformed from an ignoramus into something grotesque. Tolstaya executes his transformation wonderfully.
The Slynx is a veritable goldmine of satire and wordplay. Tolstaya makes jabs at both late Soviet and ’90s-era Russian life. For example, the KGB have been transformed into “Saniturions”, who travel the city in sleighs while wearing red hooded robes, snatching forbidden books from peasants with a curiously sickle-like weapon. The modern folk who long for the Soviet days have become a species known as the “Degenerators” – beasts of burden who pull the sleighs of the upper class, and during their downtime stand near the stables smoking and reminiscing about The Way Things Were. There are also the old “moozeeums” now hated and feared by the general populace, and the genetic mutation each person has, simply known as their “Consequence”.
But with so much emphasis on wordplay, it’s unsurprising that the book by and large is uneven. Though Tolstaya succeeds in creating a vivid setting, her characters aren’t compelling – they more closely represent certain positions than real people. They are for the most part ignorant, coarse, simplistic, and unsympathetic. I know this was by design, but I feel the same nonetheless. Then there is the worldbuilding: Tolstaya spends the first half of the novel establishing and re-establishing the same ideas, so by the time the story switched gears in the second half, I’d already detached myself and had to be pulled back in. Even Tolstaya’s stylistic choices grew grating after a while. (I’m aware I’m in the minority here – wit in The Slynx has earned Tolstaya praise from both Russian and Western critics.) She frequently invokes Russian literature, fairytales, and other cultural material. (Anyone up for a game of “What’s That Reference”?) She hammers in her message several times: people must understand their primer basics, both for reading and life. Books are more than just collections of words bound together. True enough – yet at times that’s exactly what The Slynx feels like: an assemblage of original setting, familiar messages, parody, and stylistic flourish. But these alone do not good fiction make.
Fans of wordplay and dystopia will likely enjoy The Slynx, but this reviewer grew weary of its literary devices. In no way is this a bad book – the opposite is true – but a handful of interesting concepts and sharp wit don’t quite compensate for pages upon pages of heavy-handed technique and moralizing.
★ ★ ★
The Slynx by Tatiana Tolstaya. Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. Pub. 2003 by Houghton Miffin Harcourt. Hardcover, 278 pages. ISBN13: 9780618124978.
Join me next week when I examine Dmitry Glukhovsky’s bestselling apocalyptic horror novel Metro 2033.