In a city where everyone has read more than you have and knows more about literature than you do, read this with the knowledge that you still have the upper-hand soulwise. This is a story about really reading, about reading not just books, but the world -- and yourself. It is rich in texture, horror, soul, wit, and drama, but not redemption. Because there is no redemption in this game -- only nonstop, unrelenting, uncaring time.
— Sarah G.
This weird Russian novel imagines humanity some 200 years after the cataclysmic Blast. Slapstick but cynical, Tolstaya writes like Bolaño, but a Bolaño tripping balls on LSD instead of heroin - they share a sentimental nihilism, or a precise tossed-offedness. In other words, instead of lists of dead girls, we get straight-faced descriptions of people's post-nuclear Consequences, like nostrils sprouted on knees and extra legs. This book is hilarious and tragic, bizarre and bizarrely moving. (There is, I think, a little Benedikt in all of us.)
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“A postmodern literary masterpiece.” –The Times Literary Supplement
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.
About the Author
Born in Leningrad, Tatyana Tolstaya comes from an old Russian family that includes the writers Leo and Alexei Tolstoy. She studied at Leningrad State University and then moved to Moscow, where she continues to live. She is also the author of Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians.
Jamey Gambrell is a writer on Russian art and culture. Her translations include Marina Tsvetaeva's Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917—1922 and Vladimir Sorokin's Ice, published by NYRB Classics on December 2006.
“The hero of this spellbinding futuristic novel, a government scribe named Benedikt, lives in a primitive settlement on the site of Moscow, two hundred years after "the Blast." No one knows quite how the old world was destroyed; as Benedikt puts it, "People were playing around and played too hard with someone's arms." Citizens born after the Blast exist on a diet of mice and "worrums" and bear frightening mutations, or 'Consequences' -- a tail, a single eye, a head covered with fringed red coxcombs. Other inhabitants, called Oldeners, haven't aged at all since the Blast, and harbor memories of a lost culture that go unheeded by their descendants. Tolstaya's radioactive world is a cunning blend of Russia's feudal and Soviet eras, with abuse of serfs, mandatory government service, and regulation of literature. The dangers that threaten, however, feel more contemporary: to the south, Chechens; and to the west a civilization that might hold some promise, except that its members "don't know anything about us." —The New Yorker
“Though her short fiction combines a Chekhovian talent for character development with an Isaac Babeln like economy of prose, The Slynx is a complex, deeply rewarding masterwork about a man preserving the charred remains of Russian high culture.” –The Washington City Paper
"The post-nuclear world is not so different from what many readers might imagine—a mutant race has emerged, mice are an important food group, and books are banned. And to make life for the proletariat even harder, a murderous creature called the slynx is preying on the city’s workers. Benedikt seems to live an almost charmed life as one of the dictator’s scribes, plagiarizing liberally to make Kablukov the creator of all things wonderful and wise. Then he develops a taste for knowledge, and realizes he must be the revolution." --School Library Journal
“Tolstaya offsets layers of exquisitely constructed language with the colloquial and the idiomatic and in a similar way layers the commonplace with the supernatural. The creation of a brilliant jumble of motley metaphors is her gift – not plot, trajectory, or the arc of a story, but the plunge into the middle of dazzling verbiage, her bright universe.” –The Boston Phoenix
“Though some may already consider contemporary Russia a kind of dystopia, things could yet be worse, as posited in Tolstaya's intelligent debut novel (after two acclaimed story collections, Sleepwalker in a Fog and On the Golden Porch). Some kind of nuclear accident has turned all of Russia into a postapocalyptic wasteland, where snow falls constantly and mice are the staple of people's diets. Moscow has been ruled by a series of petty despots, each of whom renames the great city after himself. The latest ruler is Fyodor Kuzmich, who employs vast numbers of scribes to copy his writings (actually plagiarized versions of great literary works). One of these scribes is Benedikt, a simple man who has never actually read a book. But Oldeners-people who survived the blast-keep secret libraries, and when one of them introduces Benedikt to his collection, it begins a cycle of learning that gives Benedikt serious political ambitions, enough to start yet another Russian revolution. It takes some time for a plot to develop, but Tolstaya sketches a vivid picture of life in this permanent winter ("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"). If the author's name looks familiar, it's because it is: Tolstaya is Leo Tolstoy's great-grandniece, so writing about Russian tyranny is something of a family tradition. In this extended fable, she captures the Russian yearning for culture, even in desperate circumstances. Gambrell ably translates the mix of neologisms and plain speech with which Tolstaya describes this devastated world. (Jan. 15) Forecast: Tolstaya is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and other journals, and this novel will likely benefit from its simultaneous publication with a collection of her essays (Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians; Mariner).” Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. —Publishers Weekly
"With the publication . . . of THE SLYNX, [Tolstaya] will . . . be granted a place alongside her exalted countrymen Nabokov, Bulgakov, and Gogol . . ." —Bookforum
“In a society turned primitive by nuclear holocaust, people hunt mice and tremble at the mention of a mysterious forest creature called the slynx; of course, they are utterly ignorant, as books are banned. This scenario may sound familiar, but what's new is the setting. Tolstaya, a noteworthy essayist and short story writer descended from the mighty Tolstoy, places her tale in a futuristic Russia and imbues it with a Russian's typically mournful optimism. At its heart is Benedikt, scribe to the tyrant who rules this sorry land. Timid Benedikt has yet to read a book, but in the course of the novel he discovers the libraries owned by the Oldeners, those who recall the world before the fateful blast. Not surprisingly, he finds that literature is both liberating and dangerous. The story starts slowly but gathers strength; it is particularly interesting to see a Russian interpretation of dystopia and to imagine parallels with Russian history. Not for your average reader of futuristic tales, this belongs instead in all literary collections.” [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/02.]-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information. —Library Journal
“A strikingly imagined first novel (after stories: On the Golden Porch, 1989; Sleepwalker in a Fog, 1992) skillfully creates a frightening and perversely funny postnuclear world. The setting is what once was Moscow, two hundred years after "the Blast" that leveled the metropolis, leaving a frozen wasteland clogged with trash and populated by a mixture of "normal" human beings and grotesque mutants. Moscow is now called Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, in honor of its seldom-seen dictator Kablukov, a paternalistic egotist who is reputed to have invented every useful object now known to man and to be the author of the classic literary works he blithely plagiarizes. A ravenous mythical beast, the slynx, further impairs the wretched lives of oppressed workers ("Golubchiks"), prowling the ruined city's dark outskirts. And Benedikt, a Golubchik employed as one of the numerous scribes recording the dictator's ostensible works, naively incarnates both his people's passive servitude, and-once he's introduced to forbidden books by "Oldeners" who deny Fyodor Kuzmich's virtual divinity-their urge toward enlightenment and freedom. Sustained by his love for his fiancée Olenka, and encouraged by his putative father-in-law Kudeyar Kudeyarich, Benedikt aspires to further knowledge ("He dreamt he knew how to fly"), loses his own mutant status (surrendering his vestigial tail), and finds himself crucially involved in a "revolution" that ends Fyodor Kuzmich's abuses of power even as it recycles them in different forms. The slynx is thus less mythic than symbolic: it's the beast in man. Tolstaya enriches this mordant farce with a wealth of weird supporting detail reminiscent of Anthony Burgess's futuristic classic A Clockwork Orange. An ending note informs us that The Slynx was written between 1986 and 2000, and it's easy to see why. A densely woven, thought-provoking fantasy, and an impressive step forward for the gifted Tolstaya.” —Kirkus Reviews
The Slynx, with its comical, tragical, post-nuclear holocaust setting, is a satirical blast, a linguistically inventive glimpse of a future nobody wants to see. — Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered
It is impossible to communicate adequately the richness, the exuberance, and the horrid inventiveness of The Slynx. — John Banville, The New Republic
[a] spellbinding futuristic novel....Tolstaya’s radioactive world is a cunning blend of Russia’s feudal and Soviet eras, with abuse of serfs, mandatory government service, and regulation of literature. The dangers that threaten, however, feel more contemporary: to the south, Chechens; and to the west a civilization that might hold some promise, except that its members “don’t know anything about us.” — The New Yorker The Slynx is a profound work. It is well served by Jamey Gambrell’s fine translation. — Books in Canada