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14 November 2018

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The Slynx

by Tatyana Tolstaya

“What’s a fable?” asks the main character of Tatyana Tolstaya’s first novel – published in 2002 and now out in paperback. “A fable is a directive rendered in a simplified form for popular consumption,” comes the reply.

On the surface, The Slynx is a depressing, dystopian fable of humanity after a second Fall. But a fable is rarely as simple as it seems on the surface. And, in this case, you have to dig for the directive.

Tolstaya conjures up a rich, fantastic and mutely believable post-apocalyptic Russian world that is rich in allegory and wordplay. At the center of the tale is the simple, unambitious scribe, Benedikt. When confronted by the Head Santurion (in charge of internal security), who happens to be his prospective father-in-law, he cries: “I don’t know anything, I’ve never seen anything. Never heard anything. I don’t understand anything, don’t want anything, haven’t dreamt anything.”

It is the common cry of the innocent in the face of tyranny. And it is as false as it is irrelevant.

Benedikt of course wants something. First it is the beautiful Olenka. And then, after he discovers books, it is the calm, comfortable life of fantasy which books allow: escape from his horror- and fearstricken world.

But, for everything, there is a price. And perhaps that is the directive, the moral of this dark and fascinating fable, which Tolstaya – previously a short story writer – reportedly took a decade to write. Even in a post-nuclear world, in which mice are the basic foodstuff and common currency, it turns out that things can get worse still.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2007