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The Slynx (2007)

The Slynx (2007)
3.8 of 5 Votes: 2
1590171969 (ISBN13: 9781590171967)
nyrb classics
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The Slynx (2007)
The Slynx (2007)

About book: I am a butcher. Only I don’t work with meat, I work with words. Cutting, slicing, trimming. All for Vladimir, the great and powerful, and The Good Russian People. Give me War & Peace and I’ll hand you back a pamphlet. That’s progress, comrades. When they gave me the job they said that I would be serving my country by preventing the spread or dissemination of dangerous materials. Most people don’t realise how dangerous literature is. They focus too much on bombs and guns, and forget all about the clever metaphor. No one ever dropped a clever metaphor on a village of women and children, they say. Well, that means I’m doing my job properly. They’ll give me the Order of Lenin one day, no doubt. Recently I’ve been working on The Slynx. Cutting, slicing, trimming. It’s hard work, comrades. First, you have to read the book several times. You don’t want to miss anything, to let anything through that ought not to get through. Vladimir, the great and powerful, would not to be pleased. And when Vladimir is not pleased someone gets it. I thought about the title for a long time. Slynx. What is it? What does it mean? Is it some kind of code? According to Tolstaya, who wrote the book, it is a strange, mysterious creature that grew out of the nuclear explosion that has, in a sense, created the world that she describes. Well, ultimately I decided to get rid of it. The title, I mean. You can’t be too careful. I renamed the book The Sensible Adventures of Comrade Benedikt. There are a lot of weird creatures in the book; mutants, I guess you would call them. One woman has multiple cockscombs; there is a man with ears all over his body; another man can breathe fire. Tolstaya calls these defects or mutations Consequences. While I wasn’t too entertained by all that – in fact I found it rather silly and distracting – I let it go. I saw nothing in it to corrupt The Good Russian People. You have to be careful not to censor too much, otherwise our citizens will have nothing to read, to keep them busy and stop them from thinking for themselves. Stop Worrying, Let Vladimir Think For You, goes the popular slogan. Oldeners are people who were born before the blast, and survived it. They remember. Memory, comrades, is perhaps our most potent weapon. Sometimes I meet someone who can recall the original books, before I got my hands on them. ‘Where is the rest of it?’ they say.’ It’s all there, comrade,’ I reply. ‘My arse it is!’ they say, ‘I know something about books, comrade, and I can tell you that there is a character in this one called Bazarov.’ We were talking about Turgenev, of course. ‘And yet, now there is no Bazarov!’ I told him that he was imagining things. Bazarov! You made that up, comrade. Whoever heard of such a name, you silly shit! The problem with post-apocalyptic literature is that it is, generally speaking, not half as clever or inventive as the author thinks it is. Take The Slynx, for example. The blast has left people mutated, with strange powers? Ok then. And these people are ignorant of what existed before the blast? Dandy. The ignorant ones make mistakes about, mispronounce or misunderstand the things that existed before the blast, so that morality becomes more-allity, for example. Well. Let’s be honest, all this is pretty standard stuff, you really expect this sort of thing, it’s a formula. I once worked on Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, comrades, and I can tell you that The Slynx is very similar indeed. Very similar! Now, I’m not a writer myself, you know, I’m an editor, and being an editor I know something about authorial decisions, so to speak. If I could have spoken to Tolstaya I would have said, ‘comrade, does your book have to be so similar to other books of the same sort? Isn’t doing something that has been done many times before, with only minimal changes, rather pointless, in fact? ’ And she’d probably turn up her nose at me or laugh or call me an unpleasant name, like Kulak, but I would be right, of course. And she’d probably point out to me that The Slynx is a satire, that the ignorant masses are meant to represent our own ignorant masses, The Good Russian People. Sure, sure. But then I would likewise point out to citizen Tolstaya that satire, or allegory, is itself the province of the lazy and unimaginative, because it is necessarily obvious, otherwise the nincompoops wouldn’t get it. Take Kapek’s War with the Newts [which I wittled down to a still generous 30 pages], in which human beings colonise a race of newts. Well, the newts are, of course, meant to represent all the races or peoples that we have attempted to colonise ourselves. And one has to ask oneself, well, what was the point of that? It is as though satire allows you to do really obvious things, to make points even a child would grasp, just because you’ve changed humans to newts. No, comrades. If you want to want to write about colonisation, do so; it is artistic cowardice to hide behind a bunch of lizards. What elevates The Slynx is the narrative voice, which is buoyant and charismatic, although somewhat naïve and simple-minded, like Hucklebery Finn after a hard blow to the head. It is such a charming voice, albeit strongly reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal or even Gogol. Hrabal was a Czech novelist whom Vladimir, the great and powerful, despises. I once let one of his novels through, with major cuts of course, and Vladimir got so angry he punched a bear square in the face. That wasn’t very nice, if I may say so. Aleksy, the bear, wasn’t expecting it, having agreed to a wrestling not a boxing match. One of the hardest parts of my job is managing humour. It is very easy to ruin a funny book if you make too many alterations. For example, you might leave in three quarters of a joke and expunge the punchline. And that is bad. A joke without a punchline is like an army without a general. The Slynx, I must confess, is very funny indeed. It is not a sophisticated humour, because sophisticated humour is not actually funny, I’ve found. Sophisticated humour makes you smile, often with only one half of your mouth. Real humour, on the other hand, draws ugly sounds from your throat. I made some very conspicuous noises when reading this book. Fortunately, I work alone, and so no one would have heard me, except the spiders in the corners, and spiders won’t denounce you if you laugh at the wrong thing, comrades. For example, I was much amused by the izba where you pick up your wages by putting your hand in a narrow hole and grabbing what you can, hopefully without injuring your hand or arm too much, while the hole where you pay your taxes is wide, spacious and unlikely to harm you. I had to get rid of all that, obviously, but it did make me chuckle. I liked the Degenerators too. They are a kind of workhorse, hairy but with human features and the ability to speak. They pull troikas and sleighs. They are foul-mouthed too. I imagine that they are the peasantry, the Muzhiks in Tolstaya’s world. Of course anything to do with the peasantry had to go, which is a shame as I think you would have got a kick out of the Degenerators. Sometimes I will cut something but save it for myself. This is foul weakness in me, I know. At home I have a scrapbook full of pages, quotes and phrases that are likely to unsettle The Good Russian People and lead them towards uselessness and a lack of right-thinking consciousness. I, however, as a government employee, am immune to that horrible potentiality. So I kept a little something from The Slynx.* I would also have liked to have taken home all the parts and pages about the recreation of culture, which obviously I had to eradicate, but I considered that too much of a risk. The Oldeners, if you recall, can remember life before the blast, and so they yearn for a return to that way of life. One of them, Nikita Ivanich, puts up signs to indicate what and where certain places used to be. I found that rather moving. He has Benedikt carve a wooden statue of Pushkin too, in an attempt to reconnect with the past. Of course, in our beloved Rus we are always surging towards the glorious future, a future helmed by Vladimir, the great and powerful, so this kind of soft peasant sentimentality is just not on. I’m ashamed, I tell you, but there was something in this retracing, this desire to remake a lost world – the manners, the monuments etc – that got to me, that made me blub, bub. I guess Tolstaya is making a serious point too, about how humanity is drawn towards culture, how we strive towards it. We need books and art, I guess. There is a lot written about literature in The Slynx. There are also numerous quotations throughout the text, mostly from our Russian writers. In my time, I see around me a weird kind of fetishisation of books in particular, where people will loaf in shops smelling and caressing them. And of course this is classless decadence, but when you consider that citizen Tolstaya is Russian, and that people like me have censored works of literature for many years, her characters’ obsessions with books doesn’t seem so odd. For The Good Russian People a book is not just something you pick up at the store because H.R.H. Oprah Winfrey has had it stickered. You do not pass it on to your neighbour simply because you know that she likes brutal murders and bondage hanky-panky. A book is a statement, it is a kind of protest. It is, in short, a serious business. We Russians, at least, understand this. You do not suppress something unless you recognise its power, comrades.---*This is what I kept:“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! Look, see, I don’t have any! Look, I’m naked, barefoot, I’m standing before you—nothing in my pants pockets, nothing under my shirt or under my arm! They’re not stuck in my beard! Inside—look—there aren’t any inside either—everything’s been turned inside out, there’s nothing there! Only guts! I’m hungry! I’m tormented!…”

Tatyana Tolstaya was born into the Russian aristocratic family of Tolstoy. You might be thinking, as was I, would that happen to be the Leo Tolstoy family? Why in fact it is! I wasn't able to trace down exactly how she is related to Leo, but in several articles it mentions her relationship to the Russian literary giant. Her grandfather, Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi, was also a well respected writer who wrote the book "Peter l". Tolstaya has a literary blue-blood heritage that gives her a leg up in the publishing world. The Russian publishers had to be wiping the saliva from their chins at the thought of having another Tolstoy to publish. But can the woman write, can she make Leo Tolstoy proud? YES!!! In my humble opinion she delivered a masterpiece. A wonderfully inventive book that Leo would have read with awe and delight. The book is part of the New York Review Books classic series that are of such high quality I often wonder why I'm not reading more of them. Here is a link to their website. Our hero is Benedikt and he is living in a post-apocalyptic world where rabbits are toxic, food in general is scarce, and nearly everyone is exhibiting Consequences as a result of THE BLAST event that happened 200 years ago. Benedikt transcribes old books, written before the THE BLAST, and they are presented to the world as the writings of their leader Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. The scribes begin to question that the writing style of their dear leader changes so much from book to book, but it is best not to have any association with Freethinking. Anytime you feel different than you should you must be careful. "When you growl through your teeth, grumble and grouse--the anger feels good, it kind of rolls around all prickly warm inside you. You wanna show off your strength. Kick a fence. Or a dog if you meet one. Or smack one of the guys around. Whatever. There are all kinds of things you can do. But sometimes you don't feel like getting mad. It's like there's a sadness inside. Like you feel sorry for someone. Must be feelosophy.Bureaucrats control every faze of their existence. These are for the most part self appointed people who have taken over collecting taxes, rationing of script, and managing the distribution of goods. Most are corrupt and cut a fat hog while the rest of the population is near starvation. The main source of protein and bartering power comes from one little critter that most of us don't even want to contemplate adding to our diet, and certainly it makes me shiver to think of my survival depending on my ability to build a better mouse trap. Trade is determined by how many mice something is worth. Benedikt carries them around in braces under his jacket to barter them for more variety in his food diet. When he goes to see the widow Marfushka he must have enough mice for the legs to part. "Benedikt went to see the widow woman Marfushka about the woman business: maybe once or twice a week, but he'd always go to see Marfushka. You couldn't exactly say she was pretty. In fact, her whole face was sort of crooked, like someone hit her with a battle ax. And one eye wandered. Her figure wasn't all that great either. She was shaped like a turnip. But she didn't have any Consequences. She was rounded out where she out to be and caved in where she out to be. After all, he didn't visit her to look at her, but to take care of the woman business. If looking's what you want--well, you can go out on the street and look until your eyes pop out."Benedikt's life takes an abrupt turn when he decides in a moment of starry eyed lust to ask the beautiful Olenka to marry him. Her family is wealthy and part of his new father-in-law's job is to track down old books. It is illegal to own books printed before the blast and even though most of the population has been made afraid of being in the same room as a "toxic" book from the past there are still people brave enough to squirrel books away in old wells or hidden in walls. It is a life changing moment for Benedikt when he finds that his father-in-law has a room full of books, and once Benedikt gets over his inherent superstitions, and begins to read, he is absolutely lost to the world of books. He inhales them. He spends so much time reading that his wife complains that he isn't paying attention to her anymore. He begins helping his father-in-law to find more books. He becomes an insane (more than just gently mad) bibliophile. He becomes desperate when he realizes that he has...READ THEM ALL. His father-in-law, a few cards short of a full deck, dangles the prospect of liberating the books held by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe and what ensues is not only hilarious, but a wonderfully constructed piece of social commentary. The world after the blast has slid backwards. Food is an issue. There is never enough of it and too much of what used to be a staple of the Russian table has proven to still be toxic from the blast. Half-human, four-legged Degenenerator's are used to pull sleighs, and the sarcastic word exchanges between one in particular and Benedikt elicited more than one snicker from me. The book receives high marks for originality, humor, and "feelosophy". "Don't you shake your beard at meeee! I with utmost confidence HIGHLY RECOMMEND this book.
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Jason Pettus
(Full review can be found at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [].)Ah, those Russian writers -- those crazy, drunken, angst-filled, delightful Russian writers! Mention the phrase "Russian literature" to most Americans, and you're likely to see the same mental images appear again and again; the dense books, the heavy symbolism, the perverse dark humor, and of course the national introspection, always the national introspection, as inherent a part of Russian culture as monster-truck rallies are here in the US. And so it is with Tatyana Tolstaya's blackly funny The Slynx, which has quite the long history behind it: started in 1986 while Russia was still a Soviet state, not finished until 2000 under the equally absurdist Putin administration, now newly reprinted in English form by the publishing wing of the New York Review of Books, not to be confused of course with the 2003 hardback English edition by Houghton Mifflin, which is technically the version that was read for this review. Whew!And indeed, if you're a fan of Russian literature, The Slynx is sure not to disappoint; after all, Tolstaya is no less than the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy himself, not to mention one of the most famous intellectuals in contemporary Russia right now because of her popular television interview show "The School for Scandal." Set 200 years in the future, the novel is basically a farce on modern politics masquerading as a dystopian science-fiction story, a tale in which a mysterious event from the past known only as "the Blast" has rendered the city of Moscow back into a peasant-village-like state, with most of its citizens having no recollection of a civilized past and no idea how to recreate such a thing even if they wanted. It's a world where people have literally forgotten how to make fire, yet have somehow retained all the red-tape of the old Soviet bureaucracy; a place where mice have become the national currency, a place where people stand in line for hours for no reason at all, to receive nothing at all, because "that's the way government works."Throughout the novel we follow one of these "golubchiks" in detail, Benedikt the Decree Copying Man, whose job is to hand-copy the purloined works of their current leader (Fyodor Kuzmich Glorybe), who in typical style has re-named the city after himself, and lives in the crumbling remains of Red Square. And in fact as we follow the travails of our mentally challenged hero, we discover that a surprisingly large amount of 20th-century Russian life still remains in post-apocalyptic Moscow, only twisted now into black-comedy proportions, and with the people following these dictates through a combination of superstitious fear and just plain ignorance; how the KGB, for example, are now known as the "Saniturions," traveling the city in sleighs while wearing hooded red robes, confiscating forbidden books from average citizens with a weapon that's curiously sickle-like.In fact, this is one of the most delightful things about The Slynx, is in all the ways modern Russia has been twisted and perverted in this future vision, and special credit needs to be given to translator Jamey Gambrell for the rich English wordplays on display: to cite just one example, how the "degenerates" of our modern times, those in a post-Soviet world who ignorantly long for the old Soviet days, have literally become their own species in the future known as "Degenerators," mostly beasts of burden who are in charge of pulling the sleighs of the upper class, but during their time off still stand around the stables smoking cigarettes and bitching about the good ol' days. The book is full of such sly jabs at contemporary Russian life -- of the old "moozeeums" that are now hated and feared by the general populace, of the genetic mutations each person has on display and are simply known as their "Consequence."But then again...
well, sorry not everything's dan brown in the literary world. oh, wait a second... I'M NOT sorry!)Haven't read the English translation but I suspect it's the style of the original that stopped you from finishing the book. If you can't finish what Russian schoolchildren read, maybe you're the problem)
i have a long and troubled relationship with the russians. for years i didnt want to read them, because i felt that i wouldnt understand them with their troubled political history, their interchangeable names, their fucking ability to endure that is so intimidating and making-me-small-feeling. and then i read bulgakov. and i felt a little more confident.... then i got a little older and i thought... maybe im ready for some dostoevsky... and then i wondered what i had been so worried about, because it was all so accessible. then in my twenties i read kurkov, solzhenitsyn, nabokov, makine, zamyatin, chekhov... i have been around the russian block, my friends... and yet... theres still this barrier between us. i feel like there is so much subtext i am just missing... that unless you are russian, there is something gently exclusionary about the writing - that you could know all there is to know about russia and its history and its peoples and still - this is not intended for you. anyway, this book was very good but im sure that a real russian would appreciate it in some more deeply personal way than i ever could.
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