I only wanted books -- nothing more -- only books, only words, it was never anything but words -- give them to me, I don’t have any! ... What do you mean there’s nothing? Then how can you talk and cry, what words are you frightened with, which ones do you call out in your sleep? Don’t nighttime cries roam inside you, a thudding twilight murmur, a fresh morning shriek? There they are, words -- don’t you recognise them? They’re writhing inside you, trying to get out! From wood, stone, roots, growing in strength, a dull mooing and whining in the gut is trying to get out; a piece of tongue curls, the torn nostrils swell in torment. That’s how the bewitched, beaten, and twisted snuffle with a mangy wail, their boiled white eyes locked up in closets, their vein torn out, backbone clawed; that’s how your pushkin writhed ...(p. 268)
The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya’s post-apocalypse novel, is as notable for the translation (I don’t read Russian, but I recognise lyricism and wordplay) as for the original text. It’s a very Russian novel, packed with allusions to Russian literature -- especially Pushkin -- and resonating with images from Russian folk tales (a princess in a tower on an island, braiding her gold and silver hair) and with an air of good-humoured endurance under oppression.
The Slynx is set in the town that was once Moscow, two centuries after the Blast which shattered civilisation and drove the survivors back into primitive ways. Those who were alive at the time of the Blast do not age: they are prone to sitting around decrying modern life and saying things like “What concrete benefit did you derive from your strength? Did you accomplish anything socially beneficial to the community?” (p. 7) The rest of the Golubchiks (comrades) -- many afflicted with Consequences, such as horns / tails / cox-combs / extra eyes -- are more concerned with the grim realities of subsistence. The economy is based largely on mice, which make a tasty soup and can be skinned for furs, though it does take rather a lot to make a winter coat. There are also succulent, though poisonous, rabbits roosting in the treetops. And worms can be stewed.
Benedikt, the protagonist of The Slynx, is a young clerk who makes a living copying out the works of Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader, though not to Benedikt, that Fyodor Kuzmich is passing off great literature as his own creation, a deception made possible by his edict forbidding the Golubchiks from owning pre-Blast literature. This edict is enforced by the Saniturions, who seize any forbidden works. Benedikt, who is besotted by books, marries into a family of Saniturions and discovers what happens to all the confiscated books. All is bliss until he finds he’s read everything there is to read.
The eponymous Slynx is (according to the old folk) a forest monster that attacks wanderers, snaps their spines and picks out the big vein: “all the reason runs right out of you ... you don’t even know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon” (p. 3). The Slynx never really appears in this novel; at least not in the form that Benedikt expects.
The Slynx is marvellously inventive, satirical, full of black humour and allusion. The prose -- which reminded me in places of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker -- kept me hooked, but the story became less compelling in the latter third of the novel, and the resolution didn’t support the weight of what had gone before. Beautiful, bookish, and funny, but ultimately not wholly satisfying.