I recently finished a book that falls squarely outside my comfort zone. I read pretty broadly, and there's not much that I wouldn't at least give a go, but The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya, hits on a few areas that make me anxious.
First, I've never had the best luck with Russian novels in translation. Come to think of it, Nabokov is the only Russian author I've had much luck with at all, and he was a linguistic genius who actually wrote in English! So that doesn't even count. Other than that, I can't think of any Russian classics I've finished. Shame on me! Tolstaya is a Russian TV host, essayist, and novelist from the Tolstoy family. THAT Tolstoy family. Eeek!
Next, I have issues with satire. I like satire a great deal, but when it's stretched out past about 100 pages, I tend to get antsy and just want things to move along already. And this book is 299 pages, so I had my doubts.
But I was delightfully surprised. The Slynx was originally published in 2000, I believe, and it was published in translation by New York Review of Books Classics in 2007. Jamey Gambrell did the translation, and it is really wonderful.
It's 200 years since "The Blast" changed life on Earth. Anyone who lived before the Blast and survived lives an extended life without aging, and those who were born after have various "Consequences" whether its breathing fire, a tail, talons, or a variety of other abilities and deformities. There is one leader of society who doles out knowledge a bit at a time because he owns all the books and no one else is allowed. Official government currency is worthless, and people survive by trading mice for things they need and using them to make food and clothing (it's a lot of work!). The protagonist's name is Benedikt, and he is a scribe--sitting hunched over a desk copying decrees or other little bits of knowledge their leader bestows upon the people.
This was a really odd, interesting, smart book. If one considers that the Blast probably happened sometime during the Cold War, life afterwards is not much different! A bleak thought at best. Rights are limited, government is not of much use, and the people are left to fend for themselves and make their way without letting on that they're doing any Freethinking. That's punishable, you know.
Benedikt is pretty dense. He seems ridiculously upbeat for someone living in these conditions, but since he's not an Oldener (from before the Blast), he doesn't know any different. He likes his job, he's good at catching mice, and he has what he needs. Things take a turn for him when he marries. His father-in-law is head Saniturian, one of the individuals charged with collecting rogue books and "treating" those who hide them in their homes. Needless to say, he opens Benedikt's eyes to much of what he overlooked or took for granted. His influence and morals are in direct conflict with the wise Oldeners who Benedikt also befriends.
There's plenty to chew over in The Slynx, from the setting to the characters' motivations, as well as a bevy of symbolism. It was a lot to take in, and at times I felt like I was struggling to make headway. In reality, that's not true. I dipped in and out of the book early last week, but I read the majority of it this past weekend on Friday and Saturday. I enjoyed seeing Benedikt grow and change, even though I wanted to shake him at times. I very much enjoyed the dark atmosphere with the lighter dialogue (a lot of the characters were funny and somewhat ridiculous). I also really enjoyed the hulking oppressiveness of the Slynx--an animal that prowls the woods at night and might just suck your blood and your soul, leaving a shell of a human behind.
While I initially rated this one 3/5 stars on Goodreads, I'm really tempted to go back and bump it up to a 4 or 4.5. The action was pretty consistent throughout the book with a big wham-bang ending, and I'm still piecing together ALL THE THINGS...from the chapter headings to the nuance of language.
Tolstaya is a brilliant writer, and I'm very glad I started my mission to read more diversely with this book. May they all be this rewarding!
Pub. Date: this edition 2007
Publisher: New York Review of Books Classics Series
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: Bought it!