The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

Vel’s Perspective

It has been a long while since I’ve made so little sense of a book, and I must admit I am fairly disappointed – not with the author and the book itself, but with the English translation and the edition I picked up. The book plays out a couple of hundred years after a nuclear explosion, which has wiped most of humanity and certainly all of what can be called civilization. As I was getting towards the end of the book, and expecting the inevitable climax, I realised this was actually the first part of a trilogy. This put the whole plotline in a better perspective, though the book can be read as a stand alone title, and the climax of the story still had a few good, unexpected twists. 

The translation and edition

The Slynx heavily relies on wordplay, on second and third meanings of words, and on being at least slightly clued up on Russian literature. If, like me, you are not too familiar with the language or literature of multiple cultures, you would require some explanations of what a phrase means, or perhaps the historical setting for a particular reference. In a book like The Slynx explanations like these would be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. You might choose not to follow through with all of them, or with any at all, but if they are there you can rely on them for some insight. The edition I got on my e-reader gave a few references at the end for the literary works quoted in the book, but the references themselves weren’t linked back to the point they originate in the text, so after the first check and losing my place in the book, I gave up on following through with those. Pretty poor execution in this regard. 

After reading The Three Body Problem, the translation of which was superb, I guess I got used to translators taking the time and effort to impart as much as possible from the original text. I am again talking about wordplays and phrases – Russian is somewhat similar to my native tongue, Bulgarian, and whilst reading The Slynx I could imagine how a saying or a situation would sound in Bulgarian, which gave me an indication of what the original text might attempt to imply. A pretty long winded conjecture to be sure, but a definite indication of how rushed, or inexperienced, or uncaring the translator for this edition was. If this sounds like harsh criticism, please read Nelly’s part of this article for some examples of just how much has been lost in the translation. 

The poor editing on e-reader and the less than ideal translation did not do justice to Tatyana Tolstaya’s work, and ended up leaving me pretty confused in regards to a number of characters, references and significant parts of the main plotline.

The positives

After all this, I would like to finally focus on the book’s contents. The plot starts, as mentioned earlier, two hundred years after a nuclear explosion which has brought human civilization back to square one in what used to be Moscow. Because of the blast, the current inhabitants of Moscow, who call themselves Golubciks, have a variety of Consequences – physical deformities which can be an extra limb, or finger, lack of torso, cockscombes or other animalistic traits. It didn’t take me too long to start thinking these deformities are outward expressions of mental and/or moral problems. And oh my, do those abound in the world of the Slynx.

Benedikt, the main protagonist, whose mother is an Oldener (one who was alive before the blast), works as a transcriber – he rewrites pamphlets and orders, as well as literary works written by the Great Murza, the leader of their settlement. It becomes apparent pretty quickly that none of the works are authored by the Great Murza, they belong to a huge variety of authors from before the blast, but only a very few characters can see through the ruse. 

I can go into a long retelling of all the peculiarities of the Golubciks’ lives – their staple food is mice which they catch themselves under their floorboards, they make an alcoholic drink from an additional substance found in eggs, and a whole host of other weirdnesses, but I will summarise instead to keep things brief. As a whole, the Golubciks actively trade mice for pamphlets and collections of stories, which Benedikt transcribes, so you might think they are a learned, civilised people, but this could hardly be further from the truth – they would read anything, anything at all, but would never analyse it, or reflect on it (the funniest example was Benedikt himself reading a knitting guide as a work of art). Moral degradation abounds as well, domestic abuse is quite the norm, neighbours steal from each other on the regular, fights and cussing are typical. The mode of transport of the higher ups are sleighs pulled by the so called Degenerators, who are Oldeners but who wear boots on their hands as well as their feet and are kept in pig pens. Other than the conditions they live in and them pulling the sleighs, I could find no difference between the Degenerators and Oldeners, but I dare not draw too many conclusions here because I feel the translation has omitted much on this point, and feel some nuances have been lost. Overall, Tatyana Tolstaya portrays a society of pseudo intelligent people, who have a very lofty opinion of themselves but are in fact still bound by barbaric and degraded habits. Consequences aside, her book can be taken as a cynical, yet painfully accurate social commentary of individuals and groups of people who never pause to consider the wider picture, the results of their actions or even the contents of the book they are reading. 

What is the Slynx anyways?

I won’t lie, part of the reason why I chose this book was because of the title. It sounded threatening and intriguing in equal measure, in Russian it is related to the word for “cat” and in English to “lynx”, and after reading a few reviews I persuaded Nelly to add it to this year’s list. When we are first told of the wider world around former Moscow, we are told of the dangerous and wild woods to the north, where it is always cold and only people who are not in their right mind would travel that way – it is the realm of the Slynx. Whilst this mythical and elusive creature does not make a direct appearance in the book we learn much about it and the influence it exerts on the people. We are told it craves warm blood, and can reach out from a great distance with its curved, pointy claw, it renders one feeble and leads them to despair. 

Benedikt himself has quite a close call with the Slynx on a lonely, gloomy night. During the day he gets a taste of what being rich and important is, but his material success evaporates the same evening when he starts thinking of how alone he is, how his work and life are pointless, how eating mice and being abused by the bureaucratic system is degrading, how insufficient reading books is when there is no one to discuss them with. Benedikt feels ill, feverish and weak – in short, as one of his Oldener friends says, he has a terrible nervous episode. But Benedikt doesn’t know what a psyche is, or what a mental illness is, so when he recovers he concludes it was the Slynx that got to him – not something from within, which can and needs to be addressed, but an external demon who cannot be reasoned with. 

Projecting mental illness on nature was common in most cultures and has resulted in many popular creatures from folk beliefs – and Slavic folklore is rich indeed. Just like with picking this first title in the series, I am sure the Slynx will play a massive role in my decision to continue with the other two books – if I were to find a better translation.

Conclusion

Overall, the book delves into topics I find important and interesting to read up on from different perspectives – mental health, culture and education, and Tatyana Tolstaya is offering an intriguing viewpoint, in a bizarre and whimsical, often cynical world. On numerous points I felt almost compelled to start learning Russian to truly be able to appreciate her literary efforts, thought process and humour. If you have a different edition, or a different translation, I would recommend giving it a go, and especially so if you can read it in original to truly appreciate the author’s creativity.

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, English edition cover

Nel’s Perspective

As part of our efforts to include literature from all corners of the world, it would be silly to skip Russia. Especially when discussing post-apocalyptic dystopias. Tatyana Tolstaya’s Slynx was also an interesting and wild personal experience. So, strap yourselves and let me tell you how I tried reading the same book twice. In the same month.

Russian vs English

Before Vel suggested the book, I had no idea who Tatyana Tolstaya was, nor had I heard the title Slynx. I remember feeling rather optimistic, so on the spur of the moment I decided I will try to brush up on my Russian by reading the original version of the book. Having a little challenge while reading doesn’t hurt anyone now, does it?

Well…

I managed to pull through the first two or three pages with some effort (and a little help from various dictionaries). The language switched between the typical fairy tale style of storytelling, which I’m more accustomed to, and very crude conversational Russian. I got the gist of it, but I was disappointed I couldn’t understand the finer nuances. You will see why this is important.

A few pages later I had to admit defeat. I purchased the English edition and eventually started reading both versions side by side. Whenever I couldn’t understand something or wanted to double check when reading the original, I skimmed through from the translated edition. This is when I noticed differences between both texts.

There were instances where the meaning of the original was slightly skewed or totally missed the point. On other occasions, parts of sentences were completely omitted from the translation. Russian sentence structure can sometimes resemble the famous Matryoshka doll – a sentence within a sentence within a sentence. This is a level of hell translators understand only too well. However, I feel this could have been tackled much better.

Despite all of this, I needed additional help from a native speaker. Naturally, I called my mum and I briefly explained what was happening. I read her a few sentences in a very broken Russian, which made her burst into a very long fit of laughter. She told me there was no way I was going to properly appreciate the book with my current knowledge of the language or the cultural and historical references. I was doomed.

Allegory and Fun Facts

I have to be honest, I still haven’t finished the book. I really tried catching up to Vel, to the point where I completely switched to the English edition in order to complete it by the end of the month. But then I felt guilty of doing it a disservice, given the fact I knew about the skewed translation. Nevertheless, there is so much to discuss.

The first thing I noticed was the names of the chapters. If you’re not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, they won’t mean much to you, but to someone who uses it on a daily basis – it’s everything. Tolstaya has named each chapter after the full name of each of the letters in the Cyrillic alphabet. Each letter has a meaning and if you translate them one by one, a sort of a message presents itself. If you wish to find out more about the story behind the letters, this is the only reasonable explanation in English I found. Once I saw this, I started searching for whether the specific letter hinted at what was going to happen next. There were some hints, but you really have to read between the lines in order to grasp them.

As you may have noticed, my main gripe was the translation. Apart from a few notes about the poem excerpts Tolstaya has borrowed from other authors, there weren’t any notes to explain other titbits and cultural specifics, which may have a bearing on the story. For example, as Vel mentioned, Moscow’s current inhabitants call themselves Golubchiks. The name derives from the word golub (голубь), which means turtledove and it can be a sweet way of addressing someone. But it also holds the meaning of someone very simple and naive. 

The narrative so far seems like a “modern-day Russian history told through fairy tales and allegory”. The story revolves around the town of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, which is the former capital of Russia – Moscow, and how its inhabitants deal with the consequences of The Blast. What is the Blast? A huge explosive event, which changed life as it was forever. Kind of like the real-life Chernobyl. The story picks up about 230 years after The Blast. 

Very quickly you get the feeling that you don’t need to go beyond the borders of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, because if you know what’s going on there, you wouldn’t want to venture outside the town’s borders as there are beasts, Chechens, as well as the Slynx. All of which are scarier than hunger and critical thinking. Also, you would already be familiar with the current state of affairs in the rest of Russia, so why bother crossing the borders?

I found it funny that the current name of the town was derived from a Russian cartoon character. But it also strengthens the concept of having a town named after a leader who is this cult-like figure, leading and enlightening the citizens of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk about the realities of life. Each of his words are messages of affirmation and mantras to live your everyday life by.

What about the common individual? Well, despite Slynx being a sci-fi novel, many of the details mimic reality. The ordinary people lead very simple lives, which revolves around work and a very poor diet of rusht and mice. Murzas, on the other hand, who are regarded as noblemen, but are your everyday government worker, lead very lavish lifestyles. Their attitude is very close to the real-life government officials in many Eastern European countries – slow, corrupt, inefficient and very much depressing.

Those who have been around before The Blast are, as Vel mentioned, dubbed the Oldeners. When I first read about them, they reminded me of my grandparents and their peers. Simply because the way the protagonist’s mother and Nikita Ivanich, survivors of the Blast, talk about how life was before the big change happened, is the same way my grandparents used to reminisce about the Bulgarian communist regime and its leader. Everything was better back then: the people, the food, the language, the culture, the moral, the entertainment.

Another interesting social group was the Sanitoriuns – medical professionals, who are feared by everyone because if they show up at your door, you vanish into the void. Major diseases aren’t treated because it’s much easier for people to disappear if there is some kind of a problem. Hence, the Sanitoriuns serve as both the Spanish Inquisition and the corrective communist party cadres of days bygone who kept others in check. 

It would take me a whole day just to describe all the other peculiarities I found in the book. Especially when it comes to the main character, because I’m starting to get the idea that many mental afflictions and illnesses are being regarded as monsters from numerous fairy tales – there is always a spell to break the curse until the next time, but God forbid if it was treated as a real medical issue. That’s why I think I will revisit the book in a second article.

Final Thoughts

I definitely want to finish reading the book. It may take me some time, but you can expect a second part to this article, where I will explore the themes of Slynx in more depth. Some might say I’m taking this task too seriously, but there are many layers to the narrative and I want to explore them. 

A long time ago I made the mistake of dismissing an author only because the translation wasn’t up to par with the author’s fame. This is a faux pas I have tried to avoid ever since. Stay tuned!


Russian Edition Published (e-reader): 5 May 2011, First Published: 1 January 1999
English Edition Published (e-reader): 25 October 2016
Language book read in:
English, Russian