“The Slynx” is one of those works that kept circulating on the edge of my reading consciousness. People were always bringing it up in conversation as something that, of course, we’d all read. Except that I hadn’t. So I finally decided to rectify this error and fill this lacuna in my reading knowledge.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: “The Slynx” is weird. Not just a little weird, but full-on, what-is-this-madness, weird. It’s a dystopian novel set several hundred years in the future, but it’s dystopian scifi in the vein of Zamyatin’s “The Cave,” not “The Hunger Games” or all the other popular dystopian scifi pouring out of the US right now.
Fans of popular Western dystopian fiction may thus find themselves left hanging. There’s a plot, but it’s not your standard triumphing-over-evil-and-adversity fare. In fact, pretty much everything about the story is ambiguous, often leaving the reader in doubt about what is happening and what has happened.
But you don’t read novels like “The Slynx” in order to find out what happens, although stuff *does* happen in the book. Instead, it’s…well, it’s not exactly an allegory, but it’s sort of allegorical. Really what it is, though, is a commentary. “The Slynx” is a commentary about Russian and human society, about what is lost and what remains. It’s also a powerful commentary about the dangers of losing civilization.
The plot, such as it is, follows Benedikt, a healthy and handsome (which is a rarity) young man in a post-nuclear wasteland that was once Moscow. His mother was an Oldener, one of the people who survived the blast and became impervious to old age, living for hundreds of years until accident or poisoning carries them off.
Along with the Oldeners, there are Degenerators, who also survived the blast but were somehow transformed into semi-human beasts of burden. One of the things the books leaves up to the reader’s interpretation is how human the Degenerators are: at first they’re presented as being basically equine, but they become more and more human as the book progresses. This tracks the way Benedikt experiences them: at first he sees them as non-human, but as he gets to know them, he interacts with them more and more on a human level. This does not, however, make him like them more. On the contrary, the Degenerators, like most of the other characters, are presented as both pitiable and dangerous. Once a Degenerator attains a position of power, he misuses it, in a long-running theme in Russian literature about the dangers of the oppressed suddenly coming to power. Readers of Dostoevsky will find themselves nodding along in these sections of the novel.
The most notable aspect of the book is how Tolstaya combines elements of Russian history and Russian literature into a rich stew. The society of the Golubchiks–what those born after the blast are called–is a mixture of the worst aspects of Soviet and medieval Russian society, combining servile feudalism with heartless bureaucracy. Benedikt is a copy clerk, like Gogol’s Akaky Akakiyevich; his job is copying out fragments of classical Russian literature, which the town leader is passing off as his own work. Benedikt is convinced by one of the Oldeners to carve a statue that is supposed to represent Pushkin, which leads to a number of jokes about how Pushkin is our everything. The spirits of Zamyatin and Bulgakov also infuse the text, along with many other Russian authors. The overall impression is one that a lover of Russian literature will enjoy getting submerged in; others may find it a bit confusing. The translation, however, is excellent, and there are notes that explain which works are being quoted.
Tolstaya began “The Slynx” during Perestroika, and finished it at the beginning of the Putin era. It reflects, at a deep, dream-like, subconscious level, the fears, concerns, and warnings of that time. Russia’s past contained much that could be discarded–but after the blast that swept away the past, it was the worst things that were being preserved, while art, culture, and basic decency were being forgotten or actively jettisoned. “The Slynx” is not an easy read, but it’s an extremely interesting one, and one that reflects both the era that produced it, and the universal danger of sliding backwards into barbarism when society undergoes fundamental changes. It’s a warning and a cry for help from post-Soviet Russia, but it’s just as applicable to a crumbling America, or any other country staring into the potential holocaust of global warming.