Tolstaya is the great granddaughter of Tolstoy (I’ll bet she never gets tired of hearing that), and thus I find myself thinking of The Slynx in ways that I don’t like…shows that Russian literary sense…exhibits a prosaic style reminiscent of Tolstoy himself…yadayadayada…
What I should be focusing on is how she creates her own version of dystopia. I don’t know of any other Russian dystopias – I guess Koestler might count, if he was Russian, and the game Metro 2033 is brilliant but literary in a far different way than I’m used to thinking about, and the novel hasn’t been translated into English – but this one is strange no matter how we think of dystopia, as it features a protagonist who seemingly has wild mood swings between giddiness and despair, triggered by the fear of anything outside the city walls (although that’s an optimistic description of their village). The novel doesn’t really end – our narrator, Benedikt, marries into the patrician class, and doesn’t even really need his job as a transcriber of pre-Blast fiction and poetry, done in order to find material for their new warlord to claim as his own. It doesn’t really begin, as we sort of jump right into post-Blast life in media res, with no markers as to where we are except for the preview blurbs.
Tolstoya also reveals information gradually – we find out that Benedikt has a tail halfway through the novel, and that his powerful in-laws breathe fire, allowing them to control the population. We get glimpses of what the world has become (the New York Review of Books called it ‘degraded,’ a description that makes perfect sense), and Tolstoya cleverly reveals some of the horrors by having everyone who was alive pre-Blast (and survived the actual war itself) granted immortality of a sort, perhaps based on radiation. She also cleverly evokes the elements of both Soviet and serf-based Russian governance with a whole series of references, ranging from the crime of ‘freethinking’ to the mounts that folks use to pull their sleigh, degraded humans who smoke and talk smack about their masters.
The most striking feature of the novel to me was its blend of languages, and the use of language to reveal what life post-Blast is like. She uses homonyms as revelatory tools (once again confirming to me just how amazing good translators are), and the veneration of books from pre-Blast times becomes a joke, as denizens of Benedikt’s village hoard cook books and tech manuals. The degradation of language marks the larger degradation in the world, and it’s both a source of ironic humor and despair.