“A postmodern literary masterpiece.” –The Times Literary Supplement
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 new 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.
Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx reimagines dystopian fantasy as a wild, horripilating amusement park ride. Poised between Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, The Slynx is a brilliantly inventive and shimmeringly ambiguous work of art: an account of a degraded world that is full of echoes of the sublime literature of Russia’s past; a grinning portrait of human inhumanity; a tribute to art in both its sovereignty and its helplessness; a vision of the past as the future in which the future is now.
About the Author
Jamey Gambrell is a writer on Russian art and culture. Her translations include Marina Tsvetaeva's Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries 1917—1922 and Vladimir Sorokin's Ice, published by NYRB Classics on December 2006.
Read an Excerpt
The SlynxA Novel
By Tatyana Tolstaya
Houghton MifflinCopyright © 2003 Tatyana Tolstaya
All right reserved.
Benedikt pulled on his felt boots, stomped his feet to get the fit right, checked the damper on the stove, brushed the bread crumbs onto the floor- for the mice-wedged a rag in the window to keep out the cold, stepped out the door, and breathed the pure, frosty air in through his nostrils. Ah, what a day! The nights storm had passed, the snow gleamed all white and fancy, the sky was turning blue, and the high elfir trees stood still. Black rabbits flitted from treetop to treetop. Benedikt stood squinting, his reddish beard tilted upward, watching the rabbits. If only he could down a couple-for a new cap. But he didnt have a stone.
It would be nice to have the meat, too. Mice, mice, and more mice-he was fed up with them.
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 wont kill you.
That is, if you catch a female. Because the male, boiled or not, it doesnt matter. People didnt used to know this, they were hungry and ate the males too. But now they know: if you eat the males youll be stuck with a wheezing and a gurgling in your chest the rest of your life. Your legs will wither. Thick black hairs will grow like crazy out of yourears and youll stink to high heaven.
Benedikt sighed: time for work. He wrapped his coat around him, set a wood beam across the door of the izba, and even shoved a stick behind it. There wasnt anything to steal, but he was used to doing things that way. Mother, may she rest in peace, always did it that way. In the Oldener Days, before the Blast, she told him, everyone locked their doors. The neighbors learned this from Mother and it caught on. Now the whole settlement locked their doors with sticks. It might be Freethinking.
His hometown, Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, spread out over seven hills. Benedikt walked along listening to the squeak of fresh snow, enjoying the February sun, admiring the familiar streets. Here and there black izbas stood in rows behind high pike fences and wood gates; stone pots or wood jugs were set to dry on the pikes. The taller terems had bigger jugs, and some people would even stick a whole barrel up there on the spike, right in your face as if to say: Look how rich I am, Golubchiks! People like that dont trudge to work on their own two feet, they ride on sleighs, flashing their whips, and theyve got a Degenerator hitched up. The poor thing runs, all pale, in a lather, its tongue hanging out, its felt boots thudding. It races to the Work Izba and stops stock-still on all four legs, but its fuzzy sides keep going huffa, puffa, huffa, puffa.
And it rolls its eyes, rolls em up and down and sideways. And bares its teeth. And looks around . . .
To hell with them, those Degenerators, better to keep your distance. Theyre strange ones, and you cant figure out if theyre people or not. Their faces look human, but their bodies are all furry and they run on all fours. With a felt boot on each leg. Its said they lived before the Blast, Degenerators. Could be.
Its nippy out now, steam comes out of his mouth, and his beards frozen up. Still-what bliss! The izbas are sturdy and black, there are high white snowdrifts leaning against the fences, and a little path has been beaten to each gate. The hills run smooth all the way up and back down, white, wavy; sleighs slide along the snowy slopes, and beyond the sleighs are blue shadows, and the snow crunches in colors, and beyond the hills the sun rises, splashing rainbows on the dark blue sky. When you squint, the rays of the sun turn into circles; when you stomp your boots in the fluffy snow it sparks, like when ripe firelings flicker.
Benedikt thought a moment about firelings, remembered his mother, and sighed: she passed away on account of those firelings, poor thing. They turned out to be fake.
The town of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk spreads out over seven hills. Around the town are boundless fields, unknown lands. To the north are deep forests, full of storm-felled trees, the limbs so twisted you cant get through, prickly bushes catch at your britches, branches pull your cap off your head. Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl-eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxx -but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth- crunch-and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, youre never the same again, your eyes are different, and you dont ever know where youre headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: theyre asleep, but theyre standing on their own two feet. People will find you and take you inside, and sometimes, for fun, theyll set an empty plate in front of you, stick a spoon in your hand, and say "Eat." And you sit there like youre eating from an empty plate, you scrape and scrape and put the spoon in your mouth and chew, and then you make to wipe your dish with a piece of bread, but theres no bread in your hand. Your kinfolk are rolling on the floor with laughter. You cant do for yourself, not even take a leak, someone has to show you each time. If your missus or mother feels sorry for you, she takes you to the outhouse, but if theres no one to watch after you, youre a goner, your bladder will burst, and youll just die.
Thats what the Slynx does.
You cant go west either. Theres a sort of road that way- invisible, like a little path. You walk and walk, then the town is hidden from your eyes, a sweet breeze blows from the fields, everythings fine and good, and then all of a sudden, they say, you just stop. And you stand there. And you think: Where was I going anyway? What do I need there? Whats there to see? Its not like its better out there. And you feel so sorry for yourself. You think: Maybe the missus is crying back at the izba, searching the horizon, holding her hand over her eyes; the chickens are running around the yard, they miss you too; the izba stove is hot, the mice are having a field day, the bed is soft . . . And its like a worrum got at your heart, and hes gnawing a hole in it . . . You turn back. Sometimes you run. And as soon as you can see your own pots on your fence, tears burst from your eyes. Its really true, they splash a whole mile. No lie!
You cant go south. The Chechens live there. First its all steppe, steppe, and more steppe-your eyes could fall out from staring. Then beyond the steppe-the Chechens. In the middle of the town theres a watchtower with four windows, and guards keep watch out of all of them. Theyre on the lookout for Chechens. They dont really look all the time, of course, as much as they smoke swamp rusht and play straws. One person grabs four straws in his fist-three long ones, one short. Whoever picks the short one gets a whack on the forehead. But sometimes they look out the window. If they spot a Chechen, theyre supposed to cry "Chechens, Chechens!" and then people from all the settlements run out and start beating pots with sticks, to scare the Chechens. And the Chechens skedaddle. Once, two people approached the town from the south, an old man and an old woman. We banged on our pots, stomped and hollered up a storm, but the Chechens didnt care, they just kept on coming and looking around. We-well, the boldest of us-went out to meet them with tongs, spindles, whatever there was. To see who they were and why they came.
"Were from the south, Golubchiks," they said. "Weve been walking for two weeks, weve walked our feet off. We came to trade rawhide strips. Maybe you have some goods?"
What goods could we have? We eat mice. "Mice Are Our Mainstay," thats what Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe, teaches. But our people are softhearted, they gathered what there was in the izbas and traded for the rawhide and let them go their way. Later there was a lot of talk about them. Everyone jabbered about what they were like, the stories they told, how come they showed up.
Well, they looked just like us: the old man was gray-headed and wore reed shoes, the old woman wore a scarf, her eyes were blue, and she had horns. Their stories were long and sad. Benedikt was little and didnt have any sense at all then, but he was all ears.
They said that in the south theres an azure sea, and in that sea theres an island, and on that island theres a tower, and in that tower theres a golden stove bed. On that bed theres a girl with long hair-one hair is gold, the next is silver, one is gold, and the next is silver. She lies there braiding her tresses, just braiding her long tresses, and as soon as she finishes the world will come to an end.
Our people listened and listened and said: "Whats gold and silver?"
And the Chechens said: "Gold is like fire, and silver is like moonlight, or when firelings light up."
Our people said: "Ah, so thats it. Go on and tell us some more."
And the Chechens said: "Theres a great river, three years walk from here. In that river theres a fish-Blue Fin. It talks with a human voice, cries and laughs, and swims back and forth across that river. When it swims to one side and laughs, the dawn starts playing, the sun rises up in the sky, and the day comes. When it goes back, it cries, drags the darkness with it, and hauls the moon by its tail. All the stars in the sky are Blue Fins scales."
We asked: "Have you heard why winter comes and why summer goes?"
The old lady said: "No, good people, we havent heard, I wont lie, we havent heard. Its true, though, folks wonder: Why do we need winter, when summer is so much sweeter? It must be for our sins."
But the old man shook his head. "No," he said, "everything in nature must have its reason. A feller passing through once told me how it is. In the north theres a tree that grows right up to the clouds. Its trunk is black and gnarled, but its flowers are white, teeny tiny like a speck of dust. Father Frost lives in that tree, hes old and his beard is so long he tucks it into his belt. Now, when it comes time for winter, as soon as the chickens flock together and fly south, then that Old Man Frost gets busy: he starts jumping from branch to branch, clapping his hands and muttering doodle-dee-doo, doodle-dee-doo! And then he whistles: wheeeeooossshhhh! Then the wind comes up, and those white flowers come raining down on us-and thats when you get snow. And you ask: Why does winter come?"
Our Golubchiks said: "Yes, thats right. That must be the way it is. And you, Grandpa, arent you afraid to walk the roads? Whats it like at night? Have you come across any goblins?"
"Oh, I met one once!" said the Chechen. "Seen him up close, I did, close as you are to me. Now hear what I say. My old woman had a hankering for some firelings. Bring me some firelings, she kept saying. And that year the firelings ripened sweet, nice and chewy. So off I go. Alone."
"What do you mean, alone!" we gasped.
"Thats right, alone," boasted the stranger. "Well, listen up. I was walking along, just walking, and it started getting dark. Not very dark, but, well, all gray-like. I was tiptoeing so as not to scare the firelings when suddenly: shush-shush-shush! Whats that? I thought. I looked-no one there. I went on. Again: shush-shush-shush. Like someone was shushing the leaves. I looked around. No one. I took another step. And there he was right in front of me. There was nothing there tall, and then all of a sudden I seen him. At arms length. Just a little feller. Maybe up to my waist or chest. Looked like he were made of old hay, his eyes shone red and he had palms on his feet. And he was stomping those palms on the ground and chanting: pitter-patter, pitterpatter, pitter-patter. Did I run, let me tell you! Dont know how I ended up at home. My old lady didnt get her firelings that time."
The children asked him: "Grandfather, tell us what other monsters there are in the forest."
They poured the old man some egg kvas and he started. "I was young back then, hotheaded. Not afraid of a thing. Once I tied three logs together with reeds, set them on the water-our river is fast and wide-sat myself down on them, and off I floated. The honest truth! The women ran down to the bank, there was a hollering and a wailing, like you might expect. Where do you see people floating on the river? Nowadays, Im told, they hollow out trunks and put them on the water. If theyre not lying, of course."
"No, theyre not, theyre not! Its our Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. He invented it!" we cried out, Benedikt loudest of all.
"Dont know any Fyodor Kuzmich myself. We arent booklearned. Thats not my story. Like I said, I wasnt afraid of nothing. Not mermaids or water bubbles or wrigglers that live under stones. I even caught a whirlytooth fish in a bucket."
"Come on, Grandpa," our folks said. "Now youre making things up."
"Thats the honest truth! My missus here will tell you."
"Its true," the old lady said. "It happened. How I yelled at him. He clean ruined my bucket, I had to burn it. Had to carve out a new one, and a new one, by the time you hollow it, tar it, let it dry three times, cure it with rusht, rub it with blue sand-it near to broke my hands, I worked so hard. And for him, its all glory. The whole village came out to look at him. Some were afraid."
"Of course they were," we said.
The old man was pleased. "But then, you see, maybe Im the only one," he boasted. "The only one seen a whirlytooth up close-close as you folks there, he was-and come out of it alive. Ha! I was a real he-man. Mighty! Sometimes Id yell so loud the window bladders would burst. And how much rusht I could drink at a sitting! I could suck a whole barrel dry."
Benedikts mother was sitting there, her lips pressed. "What concrete benefit did you derive from your strength? Did you accomplish anything socially beneficial to the community?" she asked.
Excerpted from The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya Copyright © 2003 by Tatyana Tolstaya
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.