The Sylnx – Tatyana Tolstaya

Where to begin…

First off you’d be forgiven for never having heard of Tolstaya’s The Slynx – whilst it may be a New York Review Books Classic, it’s not exactly the easiest novel to come by. However, having read excellent things about it after a chance recommendation, I decided to seek it out for myself with the hopes that it would live up to expectations.

The novel itself is pitched as a dystopia, set in what was once modern day Russia “two hundred years after civilization ended in an event known as the Blast” (Amazon); the protagonist Benedikt works transcribing books from the oldener times, though they are passed off as the great works of totalitarian leader Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. But there’s a problem; Benedikt succumbs to “free thinking” and what he once believed so easily and readily becomes increasingly difficult to accept.

Now if you think that this is your typical dystopia novel, think again! This is possibly the strangest book I have ever read. For starters the characters in Tolstaya’s apocalyptic narrative are more fantastical than anything – there are inhabitants who can breathe fire, those with scales and those with tails to name but a few “consequences”. Secondly the narrative doesn’t run quite how you’d expect, without wanting to reveal too much the narrative has an offbeat tempo and rhythm to it, with long meandering passages that make you question where the novel is leading to at times. This is not so much a criticism as an observation – these passages allow Tolstaya to imagine the world in strange yet colourful detail, to pose a number of interesting questions about Russian society and human progress. In other words, give Tolstaya the benefit of the doubt even if you don’t feel like it, and if after all that it’s still not enough to keep you reading at least you gave it a good go.

What I am trying to say is that the novel was not what I was expecting and nor was it perfect (the ending in all honesty felt rushed and somewhat anti-climactic), but it was fascinating in ways that I did not imagine it would be, and raises questions that I hadn’t thought to ask.

I also want to take a moment to commend Jamey Gambrell, the translator, whom I can only assume spent hours slaving over some of the passages and crazy neologisms that Tolstaya seems so fond of – truly, Tolstaya’s style of writing is a whole other kettle of fish that takes some getting used to (think surreal, surreal, surreal)!

So one final word on The Slynx, would I recommend it? Yes. Is it for everyone? No.

Note: Fun fact – Tatyana Tolstaya is the grand-daughter of Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoy.

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