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The Slynx

posted on 04 May 2017

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

The Slynx was published in 2003 in the US after its original release in Russia in 2000 and garnered almost universal praise from a host of reputable reviewers. It is the first novel of Tatyana Tolstaya who, as her name might indicate, is herself from the extended Tolstoy dynasty and so both book and author come with some pedigree attached to them.

I have to say that despite all the accolades I found the book unengaging, self-conscious and unoriginal – in fact I have now tried to read it twice and floundered on both occasions  ( I did battle through to the end on the second time of asking but only in a rather cursory and unengaged way).

Maybe I’ve just read too many dystopian novels of late or maybe I’ve just read much better ones than this. Set in a post-apocalyptic Russia two hundred years after ‘The Blast’ and in a place that might once have been Moscow, Benedickt is a scribe who copies out the only writings allowed to be read – the almost entirely plagiarised prose and poetry of the great leader.

This is a world almost devoid of any kind of useful technology (why?) and with little memory of the past. A sinister group of acolytes are always on hand to ensure there isn’t too much ‘freethinking’ and  the population scrapes a sort of existence eating mice, making things out of mice and avoiding other animals that if eaten seem to threaten your life in all sorts of vile ways. The legacy of the nuclear war has left all living things, plants, animals and humans with a variety of unpredictable mutations – ‘The Consequences’ -  that everyone seems to accept as their lot in life however ghoulish.

Oddly enough some of the survivors of the original nuclear war – Oldeners - are still alive and do not age but they are condemned to be constantly ignored and to have no influence on this civilisation. People live in fear of a number of wild animals that seem to patrol the borders of the towns and cities but it is the unseen and mythical Slynx that strikes most dread into people’s hearts.  

As the story unfolds Benedickt gradually begins to rumble to the fact that the great leader is a charlatan and isn’t writing his own material but – and this is quite an original twist – rather than become disaffected by this knowledge he uses it to embed himself more firmly into the hierarchy. What we discover is that Benedickt lives with literature but it doesn’t live in him.

It wasn’t so much the themes of the book that I found disappointing but the writers style and character development which lets the novel down. How much of that is down to the translation I’m not really in a position to say but I simply didn’t find the characters came alive for me and the circumstances it described felt contrived and unlikely. Other critics have seen the book as a social satire on Russian attitudes and social or political structures and the Slynx itself as a metaphor for the Russian psyche – which if true is rather obvious and clumsy in my opinion.

I hesitate to be too harsh on any book because I’m conscious of the subjectivity of the reading experience and it’s as likely the problem lies with me as with the author. Suffice it to say that I found this a disappointing read and for fans of dystopian literature I would counsel that  there are significantly better ways of spending your time than battling through this offering.

Terry Potter

May 2017