Friday, October 21, 2016

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx (2000)

Here we have a totally wild post-apocalyptic dystopian satire allegory thing by (I think) a great grand-niece of Leo Tolstoy. The nuclear war happened some indeterminate hundreds of years ago, and now people are living a primitive, medieval (pre-medieval in some ways) lifestyle. There's a lot that's disorienting and alarming about this world, as obliquely revealed in bits and pieces. Take this, from the beginning:

Black rabbits flitted from treetop to treetop.

Huh? Flying rabbits?

It would be nice to have the meat...

Okay, makes sense...

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.

?!?! Mammals aren't supposed to kill you like that. It shows, startlingly, a world out of joint. There's a lot like this--things are weird and inexplicably deadly. I once read an observation that Adam Roberts made somewhere to the effect that one thing that scares us about nuclear weapons is the idea of being poisoned by light--poison is supposed to be a dark, dank, underground kind of thing. It bends against how we see the world, and that's alarming. I think you get a similar thing here. There's a lot more like this.

Mostly, people just eat mice, flavored with worms. Delish. Quite apart from their diet and the physical dangers around them, their existences are...somehow, one feels vaguely racist saying "brutish," but given that race plays no factor in the novel, I'll say it anyway. They laugh at suffering inflicted on others; they rob one another at the slightest opportunity and accept that this is just normal, expected behavior; they are just generally carelessly cruel.

Our protagonist in this world is one Benedikt. For someone living in this setting, he's fairly intelligent, and he has the rare advantage of having no obvious mutations ("Consequences"). He has a job copying manuscripts, which come from a remote authority figure, who attributes all texts (which are in fact a heterogeneous mixture of real-world books and stories--there are many literary references in The Slynx) to himself. The novel is written in a very loose, free-wheeling way--I cannot, of course, speak with any authority to how faithfully the translation captures the original, but it certainly FEELS impressive. It's in the third person, but frequently it wheels around to a kind of second person, as Benedikt contemplates what "you" do in a given situation.

It's set up as a Bildungsroman; you expect Benedikt to achieve some kind of enlightenment and rise above his surroundings. What happens...well, that would be telling, but Tolstoya's perspective certainly isn't an optimistic one. It turns out there ARE, in fact, well-to-do people who treasure the knowledge and aesthetic achievements of the past as contained in books--but it quickly becomes apparent that these same people are actually incredibly stupid, with no understanding at all of its significance even as they pontificate about "art" while brutally and hypocritically protecting the books from the hoi polloi. They're no better than anyone else; they may talk about progress and moving forward, but their "future" is really no better--or even materially different--from the present. The only people who do have a more sophisticated understanding of the world are "oldeners," people who survived the nuclear blast some hundred years ago even as it somehow messed with their genes so as to stop the aging process--but they're not about to restore the world either; they just get bogged down in comically irrelevant arguments about ideology, and they don't make any kind of serious effort to educate the rest of the populace. I may possibly detect some sort of allegory on the theme of Russian communism here.

Oh, and what's a slynx? It's a mythical creature believed to stalk the forests and destroy anyone who ventures there, but it comes to represent more what Donald Rumsfeld might call the unknown unknowns--we're being held back but we don't know that we're being held back or what's doing it or what it is we're being held back from.

It's not a super-cheerful novel, but it's shot through with dark humor, and Tolstoya's prose (or this English approximation thereof) is sufficiently exhilarating that it never feels dispiriting. I recommend it, though probably not for kids of all ages.


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