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“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

Nataliya's quotes

"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

The Slynx - Tatyana Tolstaya, Татьяна Толстая, Jamey Gambrell Few books terrify me to the depths of my soul as much as this postapocalytic tale full of bleakly-black humor and dark satire, set amongst the radioactive desolation of Moscow Fyodor-Kuzmichsk - which is sunk low in degradation and regression, with economy dependent on mice-hunting, with a lone half-finished statue of Pushkin pushkin stuck in between vegetable plots, with ignorance and superstition ruling it all. Welcome to the world of The Slynx!What makes this book so terrifying to me is how accurately it captures the darkness that inhabits the souls of your everyday average humans, the darkness that makes us hang our heads in shame for our little pathetic human race. These traits are hidden right under the surface - naked power hunger, greed, xenophobia, extreme egoism, glee at others' misery, hatred of anything different... These are always there, lurking in depths of the human soul - individual and collective - just barely reigned in, barely forced underground by the influence of science and literature and medicine and technology and social conscience. But what if the social structures that contained these horrors of humanity collapsed, and resulting destruction of existing culture, regression, and ignorance allowed the worst to come out?Tatyana Tolstaya brilliantly depicts the results of such destruction. It's been 200 years after the nuclear Blast, and what once was a city of Moscow is now a big village of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk (named after its current ruler, of course - until he is unseated). The effects of radiation are on the borderline between terrifying and outright comical. The economy is sustained on hunting mice, and as far as cultural life goes - well, the scribes make handwritten copies of a mishmash of books (supposedly written by Fyodor Kuzmich, of course) ranging from fairy tales to literary classics to logarithmic tables, and the dreaded red-robed Sanitars are omnipresent to take you away for the 'Healing' if you're found to be harboring a book from before the Blast.Take out the radiation side effects, and this can almost be the world of deep Russia centuries ago - the world that is so remote to us and yet so uncomfortably close at the same time. People live in huts, burn candles, do a bit of agriculture and hunting (well, mostly mice, really), there are serfs, the wheel has been recently invented, as well as that new-fangled device for carrying buckets of water from the well (attributed, of course, to Fyodor Kuzmich), boats have been recently invented as well, men beat wives for fun and out of boredom, the strangers are feared and fought with, and superstition permeates every aspect of people's lives... This is the world in which Benedikt, a scribe and an innocent creator of pushkin monument, discovers that he loves reading books, and that there is only ONE correct answer to the 'burning' question (pun intended) - which item would you take out of a burning house first?And this brings me to what I think is the most important theme in this otherwise entertaining but ordinary postapocalyptic story - the importance of MEMORY. People are nothing without it. Memory is what provides the framework, the context for our actions. Memory is what this ruined world lacks - even though there are people from "before", belonging to a variety of Soviet social classes, almost magically prevented from dying. However, these 'former' people seem more concerned with reminiscing about the past and complaining about the present, and do little of value - unless you consider talking about social injustices and putting up signs with the names of long-gone streets and the half-finished monument to Pushkin, which the locals use for securing their clotheslines. With the memory of the past gone, there is no context to any of these. Pushkin is just, well, 'pushkin', lower-case, a random unnecessary statue, a symbol of something ungraspable, unneeded, un-understood; the sign for Arbat or Nikolskie Vorota is worth no more than 'Vitya was here' sloppily carved out below it, and any book is just a collection of empty printed words. They are nothing without the context of memory."In the web of the streets, pushkin stood like a small black stick, and like a thin thread was from high above a clothesline, wrapped like a noose around the poet's neck."This is where I think Tolstaya is brilliant. The idea of a protagonist's world changing once he discovers the miracle of books is not new. What's great here is her approach to it - the idea that all the books in the world mean nothing without the context of memory, without which even Hamlet can be easily interpreted as, perhaps, the story of an unsuccessful mice hunt or something of the sorts. In order to beat the ignorance you need more than just ability to mechanistically read - you need to be able to understand and learn, otherwise reading can be quite dangerous, actually. In order to achieve any kind of enlightenment you need to first learn the 'alphabet' - which is not as simple and straightforward as poor naive Benedikt may think (by the way, I'm not sure how it was done in the English translation, but in Russian, the chapters of the book are titled with the names of the letters of the old Russian alphabet. I thought it was quite neat).The language of this book is a treat (at least to those who read Russian). The medieval peasant-like feel of the language with some twisted and half-forgotten neologisms of 'recent past' is quite fun and unsettling at the same time. And almost on every page there are allusions to the classics of the literature, including, of course, Alexander Pushkin, creating wonderful, delicious subtext and context. I can only hope that the translation managed to capture the feel of the original, since otherwise it'd be a loss to the overall feel and message of the story. And let us not forget the constant references to relatively recent Russian politics, that give this story a sharp edge of political farce in addition to everything else it is.=======================================4.5 stars is the verdict. It fell just a bit short of absolutely loving it, perhaps because of the slow build up in the first half of the book that reminded quite a bit of the standard postapocalyptic/dystopian fare. Also, I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about the ending (is it the only possible way for it to end - or a cop-out? Time will, maybe, tell). I recommend it highly, however - it is a true gem of the genre.----------And special thanks to Jeffrey Keeten, whose excellent review prompted me to reread this book (and without the reread, I would not have understood nearly as much as I had the second time around)."...Как же нет? А чем же говоришь, чем плачешь, какими словами боишься,какими кричишь во сне? Разве не бродят в тебе ночные крики, глуховатое вечернее бормоталово, свежий утренний взвизг? Вот же оно, слово, - не узнал? - вот же оно корячится в тебе, рвется вон! Это оно! Это твое! Так из дерева, из камня, из коряги силится, тщится наружу глухой, желудочный, нутряной мык и нык, - извивается обрубок языка, раздуты в муке вырванные ноздри. Так гуняво гундосят заколдованные, побитые, скрюченные, с белыми вареными глазами, запертые в чуланах, с вырванной жилой, с перекушенной хребтиной; так, верно, и пушкин твой корячился, али кукушкин, - что в имени тебе моем? - пушкин-кукушкин, черным кудлатым идолом взметнувшийся на пригорке, навечно сплющенный заборами, по уши заросший укропом, пушкин-обрубок, безногий, шестипалый, прикусивший язык, носом уткнувшийся в грудь, - и головы не приподнять! - пушкин, рвущий с себя отравленную рубаху, веревки, цепи, кафтан, удавку, древесную тяжесть: пусти, пусти! Что, что в имени тебе моем? Зачем кружится ветр в овраге? чего, ну чего тебе надобно, старче? Что ты жадно глядишь на дорогу? Что тревожишь ты меня? скучно, Нина! Достать чернил и плакать! Отворите мне темницу! Иль мне в лоб шлагбаум влепит непроворный инвалид? Я здесь! Я невинен! Я с вами! Я с вами!" (Sorry for the long Russian quote. I love it so much, but it was too much to translate while still preserving the beauty of the original. Usually, I translate the quotes from the books I read in Russian myself, but this one was too much for me to tackle.)