Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx

"No one likes Jackal Demianich much. Who could like a Murza?  Maybe his woman, and, well,  maybe his little kids, but no one else.  That's not what a Murza is there for, to like or not."

"She batted her lone eye."

"Who needs her, we thought, that little old mean-spirited, communal-apartment crone..."

"The squeals, shouts, laughing--you could piss in your pants its so much fun.  Then you light the candles and take a look at the damage.  There's even more laughter then:  just a few minutes ago Zinovy had an eye--now he doesn't!"

"Don't you sometimes think thoughts like:  We should figure out who's to blame, and crush him or stick his head in a barrel?"

"Maybe that's what he should do:  get married.  So what if she has claws?  Claws can be clipped.  You can clip them...That's not the point....Man isn't without defects."

Tatyana Tolstoya's novel, The Slynx, is set in a post-apocalyptic world of inequality and scarcity. In this future Russian world, mutant humans eat mice, steal from one another, and avoid most forms of critical thinking.  A great event known as The Blast eliminated almost all cultural and technological artifacts.  Books are almost unknown, although a great leader, Fyodor Kuzmuch, pretends to have invented whatever poetry and prose his minions can unearth.  The book reminds me of another great work of fantasy, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I recall reading about twenty years ago.  In both books humanity has all but forgotten the written word.  The analogy on both occasions is the Middle Ages, where monks sometimes strove to preserve literacy, Latin, Christianity, and a Greco-Roman heritage by carefully copying manuscripts in the midst of a sea of barbarity, superstition, and warfare.  

Tolstaya's portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world akin to feudalism naturally also reminds one of Russia's 70-year experience under Communism, where a few poets, novelists, and dissidents sometimes seemed to be acting as the sole preservers of humanism and freedom.  As Lev Tolstoy's great grand niece, the author was well-placed to regret the absence of the robust cultural and humanitarian legacy of the pre-Bolshevik intelligentsia. 

 In Tolstaya's future, the world resembles Soviet society in at least a few particulars.  First, human society, even its degenerated form, is organized under the aegis of a great leader who, much like Stalin, inspires a personality cult and maintains a personal interest in literature.  Second, men and women are organized into classes, just as Soviet society always was if one could see past the rhetoric of socialism.  

In the land of the mysterious and terrifying Slynx, the state's primary defenders are the "murzas," with another group, the sanitorians, functioning as a primitive example of the genus, secret police.  The common folk, or golubushka, are of course strictly forbidden from participating in what they themselves often deride as "freethinking."  But commoners aren't quite at the bottom of the food chain.  Tolstaya's futuristic world includes serfs, or subhumans, severely deformed by mutation and serving others in the most menial capacities.  Most interestingly, Tolstaya has dreamed up a very small group of people called "oldeners" who not only survived the Blast but also gained from that terrible event the ability to survive indefinitely, barring some freak and deadly mishap.  Undoubtedly the author didn't intend to create a replica of Soviet society, but the "oldeners" are certainly redolent of those Soviet citizens who might have remembered pre-Soviet values, whether derived from Christianity, Islam, or democratic liberalism.   

The world of the Slynx reminds one of Soviet Russia, but it's also possible to think of pre-revolutionary Russia or indeed post-revolutionary Russia.  For 19th century Russia was a place in which ignorance, superstition, class exploitation, and illiteracy thrived.  The barbaric state of Russia was of course what made Bolshevik Russia possible in the first place.  So in this sense Tolstaya's dead world refers to Russia's perennial problem.  Although a small minority of Russia's poets, novelists, dissenters, and intellectuals have always aspired to participate in a more enlightened society, these people are usually few and far between, as rare in some ways as Tolstaya's oldeners.  Of course, Tolstaya's age of darkness doesn't depict a total absence of hope for a better future.  However badly interpreted by literal-minded, mice-eating men and women, the poems survive, even Pushkin's hallowed name survives.  

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