Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya (4/5)

First published: 2000
Original title: Kys –

Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Jamey Gambrell
Page count: 297

The back says: 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 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.

I say: I first became aware of The Slynx when it showed up as a recommendation on GoodReads, and after trying to ignore it for a few months, I finally caved in and bought it (I have been trying not to buy new books, which is hard since the library only carries that many English books that I want to read). So, as soon as I received this I started reading, and to be honest, it was a very slow start for me. It took quite some time for me to get into Tolstayas prose, which felt awkward and clumsy with splashes of exceedingly academic language. I understand the need of describing the new Moscow, but it felt like so much was spent on description at the expense of the story.
I did have thoughts of saving it for later (mostly because I was looking for an easy read to take my mind off my essay), but I stuck with it and as soon as everything was explained, the plot moved along at such an exciting and intricate pace I couldn’t put it down.

The best part of the novel is that it surprised me with its diversion from the quintessential post-apocalyptic plot in which the protagonist has always felt that there’s something wrong with the world, decides to rebel and it all ends in some kind of glorious awakening and/or liberation of a large part of the people. In The Slynx, Benedikt does feel that there’s something wrong, but ignores it for the longest time. He continues copying texts supposedly written by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe (and yes, they always said Glorybe after mentioning his name) and genuinely believes that Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe is the most intelligent man there is who only has the people’s interest at heart. Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe pretends to have created so many things, like the wheel, the yoke and Christmas (though it’s not called Christmas) which I found both laughable since I know that he’s deceiving his people, but also sad that they don’t know any better.
One very interesting aspect of the novel is that after the Blast a lot of the children that were being born suffered from various physical defects, known as Consequence. The people who survived the Blast have as a Consequence that they cannot die of old age, but of illness and the like, so there are people who are over 200 years old. They remember the time before the Blast and are treated with scorn because they question the current state of affairs and adhere to their old ways. And then we have the half-human four-legged beings known as Degenerators, whose jobs it is to drag the richer citizens’ troikas. They also remember the days before the Blast but it is never explained how they came about as they were regular human beings prior to the Blast.

And then we have the Slynx, a form of magical being that catches hold of the person who dares venture into the woods and somehow makes them insane. Everyone fears the Slynx, especially Benedikt, who throws himself into states of terrible distress every time he thinks he has been touched by it. I am not going to say anything more about the Slynx as that would be too spoilery, but... nah, I’ll just leave it at that.

All in all I really like the novel. It would have gotten a 5/5 if not for the incredibly slow start, but I’m glad I stuck with it and look forward to re-reading it again. Like I said, I was looking for a quick post-apocalyptic dystopian read, but this was so much more than that. There are so many Russian literary references that I was in literary heaven, writing down all the authors and works that I have never read or heard of. Because yes, reading books from the old days is banned and whoever possesses a book is visited by the Saniturions and then taken somewhere to be cured.

There are so many elements of literary awesome that it’s sort of understandable that it took Tolstaya 10 years to finish. She is a great grandniece of Leo Tolstoy so the pressure is expected. I will, of course, look into her other works that have been translated, which include a collection of short stories and a collection of essays on Russia.

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