Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Slynx

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
Jamey Gambrell, translator
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003
Hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780618124978
Highly Recommended

Two hundred years after civilization ended in an event known as the Blast, Benedikt isn’t one to complain. He’s got a job—transcribing old books and presenting them as the words of the great new leader, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe—and though he doesn’t enjoy the privileged status of a Murza, at least he’s not a serf or a half-human four-legged Degenerator harnessed to a troika. He has a house, too, with enough mice to cook up a tasty meal, and he’s happily free of mutations: no extra fingers, no gills, no cockscombs sprouting from his eyelids. And he’s managed—at least so far—to steer clear of the ever-vigilant Saniturions, who track down anyone who manifests the slightest sign of Freethinking, and the legendary screeching Slynx that waits in the wilderness beyond.
Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx reimagines dystopian fantasy as a wild, horripilating amusement park ride. Poised between Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, The Slynx is a brilliantly inventive and shimmeringly ambiguous work of art: an account of a degraded world that is full of echoes of the sublime literature of Russia’s past; a grinning portrait of human inhumanity; a tribute to art in both its sovereignty and its helplessness; a vision of the past as the future in which the future is now.

My Thoughts:

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya is a Russian dystopian novel. Set two hundred years after some kind of nuclear accident or blast, a government scribe named Benedikt lives in what was Moscow. Moscow is now called Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, after its dictator Fyodor. Kuzmich uses scribes to copy "his" writing, which is actually that of past literary works.

In this society, mice are dietary staples and a source of trading currency. Citizens born after the Blast often have mutations, that are called "consequences" while "Degenerators" are used as beasts of burden, but actually are humans. "Golubchiks" are the citizens/workers. "Oldeners," citizens born before the blast, haven't aged at all, and more importantly keep secret libraries of forbidden books.

While seemingly a short dystopian novel, The Slynx is actually a dense novel that features references to Russia's past political eras and literature, so some knowledge of Russian literature and history would be very helpful while reading it. Equally both funny and frightening, there are so many details imparted that it doesn't seem to matter that the actual plot starts out slowly. It is part political and social commentary, while also addressing lovers of literature. In the end the slynx seems to symbolize the beast in man.

Jamey Gambrell translated The Slynx from the Russian and I can't imagine how difficult this task must have been since this is a very Russian novel. Even the translation feels Russian. This is Tolstaya's first novel and, as Leo Tolstoy's great-grandniece, she has a literary heritage. I have a feeling there is a lot of symbolism that went right over my head because of my knowledge of Russian history and literature lacks the depth needed to fully appreciate The Slynx.
Highly Recommended - if you are up to the challenge


Benedikt pulled on his felt boots, stomped his feet to get the fit right, checked the damper on the stove, brushed the bread crumbs onto the floor—for the mice—wedged a rag in the window to keep out the cold, stepped out the door, and breathed the pure, frosty air in through his nostrils. Ah, what a day! The night’s storm had passed, the snow gleamed all white and fancy, the sky was turning blue, and the high elfir trees stood still. Black rabbits flitted from treetop to treetop. Benedikt stood squinting, his reddish beard tilted upward, watching the rabbits. If only he could down a couple—for a new cap. But he didn’t have a stone.
It would be nice to have the meat, too. Mice, mice, and more mice—he was fed up with them.
Give black rabbit meat a good soaking, bring it to boil seven times, set it in the sun for a week or two, then steam it in the oven—and it won’t kill you.
That is, if you catch a female. Because the male, boiled or not, it doesn’t matter. People didn’t used to know this, they were hungry and ate the males too. But now they know: if you eat the males you’ll be stuck with a wheezing and a gurgling in your chest the rest of your life. Your legs will wither. Thick black hairs will grow like crazy out of your ears and you’ll stink to high heaven. opening

To hell with them, those Degenerators, better to keep your distance. They’re strange ones, and you can’t figure out if they’re people or not. Their faces look human, but their bodies are all furry and they run on all fours. With a felt boot on each leg. It’s said they lived before the Blast, Degenerators. pg. 2

Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxx—but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth—crunch—and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet. pg. 3

Well, and what do they give out at the Warehouse? Mousemeat sausage, mouse lard, wheatweed flour, those feathers, then there’s felt boots, of course, and tongs, burlap, stone pots: different things. One time they put some slimy firelings in the basket—they’d gone bad somewhere, so they handed them out. If you want good firelings you have to get them yourself. pg. 9-10

Two hundred and thirty-three years Mother lived on this earth. And she didn’t grow old. They laid her in the grave just as black-haired and pink- cheeked as ever. That’s the way it is: whoever didn’t croak when the Blast happened, doesn’t grow old after that. That’s the Consequence they have. Like something in them got stuck. But you can count them on the fingers of one hand. They’re all in the wet ground: some ruined by the Slynx, some poisoned by rabbits, Mother here, by firelings . . .
Whoever was born after the Blast, they have other Consequences—all kinds. Some have got hands that look like they broke out in green flour, like they’d been rolling in greencorn, some have gills, another might have a cockscomb or something else. And sometimes there aren’t any Consequences, except when they get old a pimple will sprout from the eye, or their private parts will grow a beard down to the shins. Or nostrils will open up on their knees. pg 10

Our town, our home sweet homeland, is called Fyodor- Kuzmichsk, and before that, Mother says, it was called Ivan-Porfirichsk, and before that Sergei-Sergeichsk, and still before that Southern Warehouses, and way back when—Moscow. pg. 12

And where there's mystery - there's government service. pg. 19


Jeanne said...

This sounds fun--just the sound of the title is fun!

Lori L said...

If you ever read it I'll be anxious to read what you thought. I have a feeling you'll catch some of the references and symbolism I missed.

Unknown said...

Wow Lori - this sounds brilliant.
You find the best books.

Lori L said...

Thanks, Shellie!