Tolstaya’s Apocalyptic Fantasy.

I bought Tatyana Tolstaya’s Кысь (translated by Jamey Gambrell as The Slynx) in 2001, shortly after it came out; like everyone else, I was captivated by her brilliant short stories of the 1980s, and eager to see what her long-awaited novel was like (she’d been working on it since 1986). Alas, at the time its prose was too much for me, and I set it aside; now, having reached the year 2000 in my chronological reading program — and having gotten a lot more Russian literature under my belt — I’m finally in a position to read it without excessive difficulty, and I have done so. Alas and alack, it turns out to be a disappointment, as most Russian reviews said, although reviews of the translation seem to have been largely ecstatic (“a complex, deeply rewarding masterwork”; “A densely woven, thought-provoking fantasy, and an impressive step forward for the gifted Tolstaya”; “It is impossible to communicate adequately the richness, the exuberance, and the horrid inventiveness of The Slynx” — John Banville in The New Republic). The New Yorker’s one-paragraph review (from the January 13, 2003, issue) provides a useful summary:

The hero of this spellbinding futuristic novel, a government scribe named Benedikt, lives in a primitive settlement on the site of Moscow, two hundred years after “the Blast.” No one knows quite how the old world was destroyed; as Benedikt puts it, “People were playing around and played too hard with someone’s arms.” Citizens born after the Blast exist on a diet of mice and “worrums” and bear frightening mutations, or “Consequences”—a tail, a single eye, a head covered with fringed red coxcombs. Other inhabitants, called Oldeners, haven’t aged at all since the Blast, and harbor memories of a lost culture that go unheeded by their descendants. Tolstaya’s radioactive world is a cunning blend of Russia’s feudal and Soviet eras, with abuse of serfs, mandatory government service, and regulation of literature. The dangers that threaten, however, feel more contemporary: to the south, Chechens; and to the west a civilization that might hold some promise, except that its members “don’t know anything about us.”

The thing is that if you are familiar with Russian and other dystopian literature, little of what she does is all that new or interesting. Lisa Hayden at Lizok’s Bookshelf puts it well:

The book is more about language, cultural literacy, and misinterpretation than anything else but these cultural aspects of the book are probably more difficult to feel in translation than in the original: two New York Times reviews (here and here) do not even allude to them.

Tolstaya quotes frequently from Russian literature, fairy tales, and other cultural materials, making the book resemble a parlor game for catching literary allusions. Tolstaya’s Big Point is stated in multiple locations: people must understand their primer basics, both for reading and life. Books are more than just collections of letters.

I agree. But the problem – and bitter irony – here is that the novel depends on superstructure plus familiar messages that, despite the originality of the setting, feel recycled from previous dystopian novels and history itself. Those don’t magically add up to good fiction any more than 26 Roman alphabet letters equal Shakespeare.

The Slynx has fans among Russian and Western readers who like wordplay and dystopias, but this reader grew impatient with its literary devices. I wanted to like The Slynx but the book’s occasional moments of literary clarity and satirical humor – some of which are excellent – don’t compensate for hundreds of pages dominated by heavy-handed, self-conscious technique and messages.

As I read, I was reminded variously of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s История одного города (The History of a Town; see this post) and the Strugatsky brothers’ Трудно быть богом (Hard to be a God), with their brutal rulers and cowed primitive rabble, and of course Zamyatin’s Мы (We); there are also echoes of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and especially Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, not to mention postapocalyptic short stories in sf magazines of the 1950s, like Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” and Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman.” What Tolstaya adds to the mix is her obsession with the role of the intelligentsia in preserving the cultural heritage of Russia, and frankly that self-serving idealism wore out its welcome long ago — Makanin did a good job dissecting it in Андеграунд, или Герой нашего времени (Underground, or A hero of our time; see this post). And her protagonist is not only unlikable but boring: all he cares about is eating (mostly mice, like all the plebeians), drinking, and other simple pleasures until he marries the daughter of the head of the dread Saniturions and becomes addicted to books and magazines — not in any intellectual way, mind you, he just wants to read as many as possible, and has no interest in rereading. Like all the other characters, he’s an over-the-top satirical portrait of a “type,” and that doesn’t make for good literature.

All that said, there are good things in it. I greatly enjoyed the long list of books and journals as arranged by Benedikt on pp. 246-250 of my edition (Podkova, 2000), with Children of the Arbat next to Children of the Soviet Land and Children in Cages, Mumu next to Nana and Shu-Shu, and Marinetti — Ideologue of Fascism beside The Instrumental Case in the Mari Language (the whole list is conveniently available here). I loved Benedikt’s thrilled exclamation on discovering a treasure trove of books: “– Ы-ы-ы-ы-ы-ы-ы!!!..” I thought the titular кысь [kys′] was a fine fantasy creation, an unseen creature whose sibilant hiss you hear in the forest before it leaps on your back and turns you into a sort of zombie. (I don’t think “slynx” is a particularly successful rendition, since it’s too loud and nasal; “kysh” would work better, if you ask me.) And I was genuinely moved by the passage where Benedikt and the two old-time intelligentsia characters, in the midst of a lively argument, suddenly join in a group rendition of the old Siberian-exile song “Степь да степь кругом” (Nothing but steppe around). For a moment, Tolstaya lets go of her relentless satire and provides a touch of humanity.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    Books are more than just collections of letters.

    Some are exactly that and no more, for instance Les liaisons dangereuses and Dracula.

    “Collections of characters” is also subject to cavilling in the field of novels.

    “Collections of superimposed glyphs” might be scot-free, but I haven’t devoted sufficient attention to the matter.

  2. And don’t forget Madame Bovary dans l’ordre (see this post).

  3. “Литературият Башкортостон”… читал

    I read “Литературный Кыргызстан” instead.

    But : “ЛитературНият” is Bulgarian, and оканье (“-ston”) is an Uzbek feature. I mean a>o.

  4. I wonder whether this specific work was an influence on the game “Atom RPG”, which takes place several decades after a nuclear war in the 1980s, somewhere in what was one the European Soviet Union. The game creators are mostly from the former Soviet Union themselves—from Russia, Ukraine, and Latvia (as well as nearby Poland)—and there are lots of references to works of science fiction, both in the game events and explicitly in some characters’ in-universe dialogue. (One character explicitly compares some weird events to “Roadside Picnic.”) What specifically made me think of the game was the mention of atavistic mutations, giving people body parts from other animals, in Кысь; that is definitely the kind of thing that shows up in “Atom RPG.”

  5. Brett: do you mean the protagonist’s daughters’ mutation in Roadside Picknick.

  6. @V: I don’t actually remember much of Roadside Picnic* or (consequently) what the character in the game had to say about it. I just noticed that the makers of “Atom RPG” seemed to be big fans of science fiction—including Russian science fiction that is not necessarily so well known—and the mutations in the game sounded like some from Кысь. The “fringed red coxcombs” from the review were particularly striking, since there are several individuals in “Atom RPG” with bird** features.

    * I realize that I should definitely read Roadside Picnic again.

    ** The fact that I was thinking of humans with bird-specific features made me a bit hesitant about using the word “atavistic” in my previous comment. The word doesn’t seem quite accurate. After all, there were no toucan bills anywhere in the human race’s phylogeny.

  7. no toucan bills anywhere in the human race’s phylogeny
    but can we rule out the possibility, given its implications for our reconstructions of *proto-sapiens?

  8. Another take on the anti-utopia

    Подмосковная антиутопия

    Представьте себе классическую антиутопию, когда весь мир погиб от биологического оружия и выжила только небольшая группа людей. Зачин сериала «Два холма» именно такой, но, пожалуй, это все, что в нем есть от типичного постапокалиптического сценария. Итак, сильнейшие государства в мире (США и Северная Корея) противостояли друг другу — и попытки доказать, кто могущественнее, привели к биологической войне. В результате с лица Земли стерта вся мужская часть населения. Женщины, ранее жившие в традиционных патриархальных семьях, не растерялись, когда остались без мужей и сыновей, и объединились в одно большое сообщество.

  9. традиционных патриархальных семьях

    This “traditional patriarchal family” is a stereotype on its own.

  10. traditional patriarchal family

    Well, how about this?

    Imagine a society without fathers; without marriage (or divorce); one in which nuclear families don’t exist. Grandmother sits at the head of the table; her sons and daughters live with her, along with the children of those daughters, following the maternal bloodline. Men are little more than studs, sperm donors who inseminate women but have, more often than not, little involvement in their children’s upbringing.

    This progressive, feminist world – or anachronistic matriarchy, as skewed as any patriarchal society, depending on your viewpoint – exists in a lush valley in Yunnan, south-west China, in the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. An ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists called the Mosuo, they live in a surprisingly modern way: women are treated as equal, if not superior, to men; both have as many, or as few, sexual partners as they like, free from judgment; and extended families bring up the children and care for the elderly. But is it as utopian as it seems? And how much longer can it survive?

  11. Stu Clayton says

    @juha: they live in a surprisingly modern way: women are treated as equal, if not superior, to men

    Guardian journalists have their heads in the clouds as usual, i.e. up their ass. They could pull out, and take a look at current affairs in the USA and Afghanistan.

    The modern way is the way things are in these modern times, not the way somebody thinks they should be. “Modern” is a weasel word like “progress”.

    The price of progress is eternal invigilation. Both lefties and righties want to snoop and snitch systematically, on the pretext of protecting progress. The Guardian is a Blockwartblatt for lefties.

  12. “women are treated” is funny.

    Reminds me a cretain Russian who said “Muslims do not respect women” (apparently she imagines “Muslims” not with boobs but with beards….) and an epic battle between Arab gentlemen and British gentlemen that I saw online, about who of the disrespects their women more (the battle happened in a forum thread started by a Chinese girl, who asked some question about the Middle East. When the battle began, she was ignored).

  13. Stu Clayton says
  14. Trond Engen says

    Hm. The genus Sula must have been named by Linnaeus using Swedish sula, the second element of Sw. havssula “northern gannet”. This element is cognate with Eng. ‘swallow’, so a northern gannet is a sea swallow. When boobies and gannets were split in two genera, it would have made sense if the name Sula stayed with the gannets and boobies were translated into Morus (< Gk. moros “moron”), but the opposite happened.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Fun fact: Seeschwalbe “tern”.

  16. Trond Engen says

    That makes more sense than gannets, but not much.

  17. Per the OED, English sea-swallow has referred to flying fish (1598–1740 in the UK, 1844 in the US); terns and stormy petrels (1647–1887); “An edible swiftlet of the genus Collocalia, found in south-east Asia” (1902); and the edible marine invertebrate known as bêche-de-mer or a sea cucumber (1802; “ = Dutch zeezwaluw; but the second element represents the Malay name swālā.”)

  18. An unexpected title in LH’s LibraryThing : Ty tak li︠u︡bishʹ ėti filʹmy

    I once wanted to mention this song here, but did not.

    It’s a V. Tsoy’s song, and it has “кинотятры”. I in turn as a child said “кинтятр”. Because it is how people said it.

    P.S. of course in LibraryThing it is a book title, but it’s a reference to Tsoy’s song.

  19. @Brett, it is a novel that “everyone” read, but it is everyone following developments in Russian literature. She was a celebrity in 00s and the novel was widely discussed. But it is not science-fiction and gaming “everyone”. People who discuss with me contents of books that they read never even mentioned it and I did not know what it is about before… before now. Maybe they were just unimpressed. Hard to say what sort of everyone are the authors.

    Gamers love Fallout dearly, so it is clearly the major influence. Two other post-apocalyptic works known in Russia are S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (a popular video-game) and Metro 2033,a novel by Glukhovsky.

  20. of course in LibraryThing it is a book title, but it’s a reference to Tsoy’s song.

    Yes, from the Kino song «Фильмы». Not my favorite of theirs (that would be «Звезда по имени Солнце»), but the line makes a good book title.

  21. Jen in Edinburgh says

    There’s Sula Sgeir, somewhere up to the north of Lewis – the second part of the name is Norse in spite of the Gaelic spelling, so presumably the first part is.

  22. @dravsi: “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” is very well known worldwide. I’ve seen lots of video clips from it, although I don’t play first-person shooters myself. That Wikipedia article says: “The game is based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and also influenced by the movie Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky”—although I had more associated it with Tarkovsky’s film than with Roadside Picnic. That’s just another sign I need to reread the book, I guess.

    In contrast, while I have heard of Metro 2033, I don’t know much of anything about it. These days, translating a video game is less work and is more likely to be lucrative than translating a novel.

  23. Last year I tried to read authors who publish online, something which SFReader and J1M are much more familiar with – and one of the effects of the war was that the two authors that I was following then ceased to publish new chapters. I already knew thet one of them is East Ukraine and the other is elsewhere in Ukraine (с versus из, за versus о), I even checked their VK, and found that the “East Ukraine” guy is in Luhansk and was going to ask the other guy, but it took 3 weeks for me to realize that the two fucts (a typo, but I’ll leave it as is) are related.

  24. sea swallow

    Japanese has
    うみつばめ【海燕】 ローマ(umitsubame)
    【鳥】 a storm(y) petrel; a petrel; a Mother Carey’s chick(en).
    __ウミツバメ科 Hydrobatidae.

    Other ‘sea’ birds are:
    ‘sea sparrow’
    うみすずめ【海雀】 ローマ(umisuzume)
    1 【鳥】 〔総称〕 a murrelet; an auk; 〔1 種〕 an ancient murrelet.
    2 【魚】 〔ハコフグ科の海産硬骨魚〕 a (spiny) boxfish; a cowfish; Lactoria diaphanus.
    __ウミスズメ科 Alcidae.

    ‘sea crow/raven’
    うみがらす【海烏】 ローマ(umigarasu)
    【鳥】 〔ウミスズメ科の鳥〕 a (common) murre; a (Bering Island) guillemot; Uria aalge.

    うみばと【海鳩】 ローマ(umibato)
    【鳥】 〔ウミスズメ科の海鳥〕 a pigeon guillemot; a sea pigeon; Cepphus columba.

  25. @Brett, I read Metro 2033, it affected me (and I remembered it, because some books do not affect me anyhow:)) in one respect:

    Characters live in a dark and scary world (it is Moscow metro after a war) and they of course tell each other stories about the dark world around, scary, fantastic, often mystical (in mutant-occupied Lenin’s library there is a book … ), epic. They do not have a way to tell just a scary story from true story and the reader does not too. It immerses you in somewhat dreamy state of mind and blurs the line between how you feel and how characters feel. Or at least he succeeded in blurring it for me.

    Sadly, Metro 2035 is just a political satire. It turned out to be true but it does not make it good writing.

  26. When boobies and gannets were split in two genera

    There is a third, which is basal to both:

    The first specimen was collected from Assumption Island in 1892 by American naturalist William Louis Abbott, northwest of Madagascar, although debate exists as to whether he actually collected it from the nearby Glorioso Island. It was described by Robert Ridgway in 1893. In 1988, it was placed in its own genus by Olson & Warheit 1988. The basal characters present in this species suggest it may be an early branch of the sulid family, antedating the split between gannets and other boobies.[3] This was reinforced by analysis of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene in 1997, which indicated Abbott’s booby was an early offshoot of the gannets rather than the other boobies.[4] However, 2011 study of multiple genes found it to be basal to all other gannets and boobies, and likely to have diverged from them around 22 million years ago.[5]

  27. David Marjanović says


    Ah yes, Sturmschwalben. Pretty absurd little critters.

  28. I remember the stage-setting part pretty well. I think it’s almost great, with some first-rate coinages such as хлебеда = хлеб (bread) + лебеда (saltbush or orache). Saltbush is a common weed that was once equally common as a famine food. That part reminded me of Vladimir Sorokin on a break from gore and coprophagy. I can also recall some of the development section but almost nothing of the ending. It must have been disappointing so my memory refused to store it.

  29. Yes, all that stuff is fun, but as you say it’s stage-setting, and once the stage is set the play is a letdown.

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