- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

In Tatyana Tolstaya's playful, maddening, penetrating and perplexing first novel, "Slynx", it's the mice that steal the show. Set in Moscow 200 years after an undefined thermonuclear event called simply "The Blast," the narrative features a damaged human population that relies on the surprisingly hearty rodents for food, clothing and commerce. Characters chase them, sell them, cook them, eat them and reflect upon them, and the book is all the funnier because of their scampering. Because this is a Russian novel, these mice are also tied to sorrow, fate, yearning, misery, authority, defiance and Alexander Pushkin.
Most of the book's action is filtered through the experience of Benedikt, a working-class single man who does his best to survive in a bleak, dystopic world in which, because of the Blast, humans are deformed: "Some have got hands that look like they have broke out in green flour, like they've been rolling in greencorn, some have gills, another might have a cockscomb or something else." Called "Consequences," these physical flaws, in most cases, do not impede work or love, and the characters quietly accept them the way they accept the imposing will of a ruling tyrant named Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.
Benedikt, who has a tail, works as a scribe for Fydor Kuzmich, Glorybe (the tyrant's name, alas, is repeated in its entirety throughout the book). Kuzmich, who has banned the owning and reading of books, has undertaken a project in which he has employed a team of men to copy his writings, which are, in reality, plagiarized versions of great works by Shakespeare, Chekhov and others. In the meantime, one of the Oldeners people who have survived the Blast introduces the scribe to his secret library, a place from which Benedikt gains enough learning and drive to start planning another Russian revolution.
And he finds love. The object of Benedikt's affection is the lovely Olenka, who in his imagination is two people: a magically beautiful girl who wears colorful braided bands across her brow and a plainer version whom he watched at the Work Izba (a peasant cottage given over to labor), "drawing pictures with her tongue sticking out."
Benedikt's world, a futuristic landscape reminiscent of the book-banned terrain of "Fahrenheit 451" or the hopelessly barren universe of "A Clockwork Orange," is made grimmer not just by human tyranny but by a nightstalking creature named the Slynx who lives in the forest beyond the city, hunting humans for reasons never made quite clear. The Slynx "wails, turns, sniffs, lifts one paw at a time, flattens its ears, picks … and it has chosen! Crawling and leaping, lithe and long; it turns its flat head from side to side so's not to miss or lose the trail: far away in a poor izba, on the bed filled with blood warm as kvas, Benedikt lies and trembles, staring at the ceiling."
When Benedikt moves in with Olenka's family, who mange to live a relatively luxurious life, he is able to escape the dreaded monster, but readers eventually figure out that the Slynx may not live in the forest after all but has links to man's darker side and, thus, at anytime can spring from within.
Tatyana Tolstaya is a journalist and grand-niece of Leo Tolstoy. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and the New Republic. After 10 years of teaching at universities in the United States, the author returned to Russia, where she won two major book prizes last year. The publication of "The Slynx" in the United States coincides with the publication of a collection of essays, "Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians." Though the essay collection is considerably more accessible than the novel, in which the reader can get bogged down by its allusive poetry, history, music, not to mention the author's linguistic dexterity, the two books complement each other well and in interesting ways.
In both, the author reflects on Russian culture and temperament with passion and conviction. In the essays, she has much to say about the Russian people's embrace of and aversion to authority, the pillars of its literature and the state of publishing in a post-glasnost world. After glasnost, "the word flooded the land. The circulation of literary journals jumped to a million. Then to two million. Then four million. Instead of controlled ideas and cautious judgments, all manner of opinion was suddenly available … One idea that is currently quite popular is that literature is to blame for all the woes of Russian society."
Banned words, good words, the proliferation of words, the whole notion of the place of words in a society is one that is investigated and satirized in this novel. The chapters are linked to the Russian ABCs, each getting a different letter, though one can't always be sure what they signify. Even with Jamey Gambrell's graceful translation there are some things that cannot make it across the Cyriillic barrier. Neither is it always clear how the gorgeous poetry included a Pushkin here, a Marina Tsvetaeva there comes to bear on the central story line. But it is a lovely, heady ride.
In the end it is the matter of authority and what Benedikt, Olenka and the rest of the Oldeners make of it that drives the book's course. One easily could conjecture that even beyond the author's passion for literature and its possibilities, it is tyranny in any form that angers her and fires her imagination. For that reason, the character of Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe is a particularly fascinating one, and not as elusive as one at first might expect.
Fyodor Kuzmich is the name Tsar Alexander I allegedly took after his alleged abdication and transformation into a starets, a holy man. Are readers, therefore meant to believe that tyranny emanates from the tsars, from the holy orders or is it, as the author proposes in her essays and her creation of the slynx itself, some tangle that human beings must unravel for themselves?
Who knows. This vivid, puzzling, lively work with its shades of Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov deserves to be experienced if not wholly or finally understood. Catch as catch can. After all, as Pushkin put it, "Life, you're but a mouse's scurry."

By Tatyana Tolstaya
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
Houghton, Mifflin, $24, 278 pages

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