Benedikt coughed politely to interrupt.
“My life is spiritual”
“In what sense”
“I don’t eat mice”
Having worshipped at the alter of some classic black-humor-slash-absurdist fiction back in the day, I was grinning like I was getting away with something most of time reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s first novel, The Slynx. Little did I suspect when I first dipped into this contemporary Russian writer’s book that at times it would shake out fond memories of Vonnegut, Robbins, and Harris. Though associating their wordplay, sheer inventiveness and bludgeoning irony, these guys played in a much shallower end of the pool than Leo Tolstoy’s great grand niece….
This novel was an on again, off again 14 year project, started when she lived in the USA and taught at Princeton during the glasnost and perestroika years, and finished in 2000. Though I openly admit to being unread in utopian/dystopian fiction (not even 1984 oh snap), it seems as a given that books belonging to that genre are approached as line item allegories (This_______stands for That________) .. After finishing the last page ofThe Slynx, I searched for and read three online book reviews for the novel (something I normally don’t do) and found substantially three different interpretations of what the various “this =” in the book….my grin broadened further.
The narrative is all Free Indirect (basically 1st person point of view that is made to sound like third person) from the protagonist, Benedict. Our 30something hero is a delightfully engaging pragmatic simpleton. In the two centuries after “The Blast” the inhabitant’s staple and currency is mice, which are eaten, made apparel and candles out of, and strings of them are the coin of the realm. Benedikt is a scribe, a copier of decrees ostensibly penned by the Ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. Similar to Clockwork Orange there is a bastardized vocabulary that the Golubchik’s (comrades) use to describe everyday items. Most all Golubchiks have various mutations from radiation, called “Consequences”. There exists a small sub group, or class of those that have survived the Blast, called ‘Oldeners’ who mysteriously do not age, but have avoided the mutations, and are outsiders, dissidents of the post-apocalyptic society. In the remnants of culture the existence of books are just rumors.
Benedikt, though for the most part a happy camper, like all Golubchiks, lives a subsistence level life. He reasons by observing, and this empirical narrative lens lets Tolstaya direct the reader into the storyworld with the same wide eyed wonder. Our hero has been shown to have ‘pudential” some possibility of artistic talent, and unexpectedly marries above his class. His new Father In Law, is the Head Sanitorion, a government official in charge of ‘cleansing’, retrieving books surreptiously kept by Golubchiks. In the background lurking is the titular mythic beast, the Slynx .More detail than this would mess the plot.
Scattered throughout the narrative, the many snippets of poems and allusions to great Russian poets: Pushkin (a looming figure in the novel), Blok and Pasternak serve as artifacts, fossilized bits from a pre Blast culture and are unidentified annotations for the ‘oldener’s introspections. Also, in a sense this is a warped Bildungsroman, as our practical hero has tasted art in the form of reading books and he quests to obtain more. His questing is confused, books for him are a form of living vicarious lives, simply another experience . He seems to only understand what he reads at the literal level. In a scene where he reveals to his oldener friend Nikita Ivaniich, that he has actually read confiscated books, Benedikt tries to impress by telling them he knew how “Freedom is made”, he read “Knitting and Plaiting Sweaters” and it had explained a technique of stitching to create “freedom of movement”. Enlisted and tutored by Nikita, Bennedikt carves a wooden statue of Pushkin, and helps erect it at the village crossroads. His mentor has tried to explain Immanuel Kant’s discovery of the categorical imperative:
our inner moral law is inscribed in fiery letters in The Book of Being.. and our life young man, is a quest for this book..and Pushkin knew this!
I wish I could read Russian just to compare Jamey Gambrell’s translated prose with Tolstoya’s original, because the prose sings:
You’re born, you die, you get up, you lie down, you dance at your neighbor’s wedding, or in the morning in the stern raspberry dawn you wake in fright as though somebody hit you with a stick, like you alone remain alive on earth- and the stars are still there, always still there, pale, indistinct, eternal, silent.
What I took away
This was a sheer guilty pleasure to read. There are no brainer referents to modern Russian historical socio-political entities to the futuristic storyworld of The Slynx, but there are many ambiguities where as stated at the outset, if it was a straightforward allegory of this = that, why isn’t there a consensus what “that” is? It could be argued the narrative wandered a bit in a place or two, but with Tolstoya’s ebullient prose, one can only say, by all means..help yourself.