Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

You gulp down the usual thin soup, spitting the claws out into your palm, and start thinking, looking at the feeble, bluish flame of the candle, listening to the scuttering and scurrying under the floor, the crackle in the stove, the wail just outside the window, begging to me let in; something white, heavy, cold, unseen.  You suddenly imagine your izba far off and tiny, like you're looking down at it from a treetop, and you imagine the whole town from a far, like it was dropped in a snowdrift, and the empty fields around, where the blizzard ranges in white columns like someone being dragged under the arms with his head arched back.  You imagine the northern forests, deserted, dark, impassable; the branches rock in the northern trees, and on the branches, swaying up and down, is the invisible Slynx--it kneads its paws, stretches its neck, presses its invisible ears back against its flat, invisible head, and it cries a hungry cry, and reaches, reaches for the hearth, for the warm blood pounding in people's necks: SSSLYYYNNXXX!

Benedikt lives in a town that used to be Moscow, centuries after The Blast, an apocalyptic event that killed many and left most others with bizarre Consequences: the ability to breath fire, or cockscombs over the eyelids, or a tail, like Benedikt.  Those who have it worst are the four-legged Degenerators who are hooked up to sleds and used by the mighty Murzas to travel around.  Benedikt, being a simple peasant, survives on the mice he finds in his humble izba and has a modest job recording the works of their fearless leader, Fyodor Kuzmich.  He scrupulously avoids the woods, where the terrifying worm-like Slynx prowls.

It's not a bad life.  But Benedikt begins to suspect that the voluminous poetry and prose supposedly written by Fyodor Kuzmich may not be his own work at all.  A pair of Oldeners--immortals who were alive before The Blast--commission him to create a wooden sculpture they call "the pushkin," hinting at a rich literary legacy that precedes even Kuzmich.  When he marries the beautiful Olenka, her father, the head of a thought-police like organization called the Saniturions, introduces him to an immense library of books.

The structure of The Slynx seems at first to play along familiar lines.  We expect that Benedikt's newfound passion for books will lead him to a larger wisdom, and perhaps give him the courage to overthrow the reign of Fyodor Kuzmich.  And that happens, sort of.  ("Why, why are you ousting meeee?" whines the dwarf Kuzmich.  "You're not nice!")  But Tolstaya cynically suggests that bibliophilia and high culture don't necessarily translate into wisdom or empathy.  ("I see you love culture," says Benedikt's father-in-law as he finds him reading a book.  "I adore culture," Benedikt replies.)  Benedikt is as happy reading The Plague of Domestic Animals: Fleas and Ticks as he is reading Pushkin, and he assumes from the tatteredness of his copy of Chekhov that the playwright was a sloppy, careless man.

One of the funniest bits in the novel is a long catalog of books, organized by Benedikt, who has no conception of an ordered alphabet.  He groups The Red and the Black with Baa Baa Black Sheep, Appleton with Bacon and Cooke, Beerbohm with Drinkwater and Dryden, Coffin with Dyer.  Marinetti--the Ideologist of Fascism is grouped with Marinating and Pickling.  Anais Nin is grouped with Mutant Ninja Turtles Return.

Tolstaya's vision of the future is frightening, funny, a little silly and gross.  It's also perfectly realized.  But far from being a warning, like 1984 or Brave New World, Tolstaya equivocates over the qualities of the Dark Age future and the enlightened past.  Benedikt's Oldener friends cherish a relic they've found, which turns out to be instructions for a meat grinder:

The wheel has been reinvented, the yoke is returning to use, and the solar clock as well!  We will soon learn to fire pottery!  Isn't that correct, friends?  The time of the meat grinder will come.  Though at present it may seem as mysterious as the secrets of the pyramids--we don't even know if they still stand, by the way--as incomprehensible to the mind as the canals of the planet Mars--the hour will come, friends, when it will start working!

But while they dream of "the time of the meat grinder," the local peasants are using the pushkin to hang their laundry.  The Slynx itself becomes a symbol of the inescapable meanness and emptiness of humanity, which frequently fails to be softened or ennobled by literature or tradition.  It's a cynical book, I think, more cynical than even Orwell was.  But it's a hell of a lot funnier.

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