A strikingly imagined first novel (after stories: On the Golden Porch, 1989; Sleepwalker in a Fog, 1992) skillfully creates a frightening and perversely funny postnuclear world.
The setting is what once was Moscow, two hundred years after “the Blast” that leveled the metropolis, leaving a frozen wasteland clogged with trash and populated by a mixture of “normal” human beings and grotesque mutants. Moscow is now called Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, in honor of its seldom-seen dictator Kablukov, a paternalistic egotist who is reputed to have invented every useful object now known to man and to be the author of the classic literary works he blithely plagiarizes. A ravenous mythical beast, the slynx, further impairs the wretched lives of oppressed workers (“Golubchiks”), prowling the ruined city’s dark outskirts. And Benedikt, a Golubchik employed as one of the numerous scribes recording the dictator’s ostensible works, naively incarnates both his people’s passive servitude, and—once he’s introduced to forbidden books by “Oldeners” who deny Fyodor Kuzmich’s virtual divinity—their urge toward enlightenment and freedom. Sustained by his love for his fiancée Olenka, and encouraged by his putative father-in-law Kudeyar Kudeyarich, Benedikt aspires to further knowledge (“He dreamt he knew how to fly”), loses his own mutant status (surrendering his vestigial tail), and finds himself crucially involved in a “revolution” that ends Fyodor Kuzmich’s abuses of power even as it recycles them in different forms. The slynx is thus less mythic than symbolic: it’s the beast in man. Tolstaya enriches this mordant farce with a wealth of weird supporting detail reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s futuristic classic A Clockwork Orange. An ending note informs us that The Slynx was written between 1986 and 2000, and it’s easy to see why.
A densely woven, thought-provoking fantasy, and an impressive step forward for the gifted Tolstaya.