Book Review: The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

I never want to take anything away from an author as gifted as Tatyana Tolstaya. That said, one of the more intriguing aspects of Tolstaya’s The Slynx is Jamey Gambrell’s translation of the work.

The Slynx is a satire set in a Russia more than 200 years after “the Blast.” Life has reverted to a feudal state. The wheel was only recently reinvented, mice are a dietary staple and a medium of economic exchange, and fire is still considered so magical that people must rely on “stokers,” whose sole job is to reignite stoves in homes when the fire goes out. Those born after the Blast have to live with Consequences – too few, too many and/or deformed eyes, ears or limbs; gills; nostrils on their knees; or cockscomb growing on various parts of the body. The Olderners – people who survived the Blast – have their own Consequences. They live for centuries. But their recollections of pre-Blast life and much of their language are meaningless to the people who inhabit this Russia.

I understand translation is difficult because certain words or idioms simply do not translate well or at all between languages. And not being familiar with the Russian language, I can’t imagine what Gambrell’s efforts. Passers by on the streets and neighbors in the village here may lapse into phrases and insults that seem as appropriate to Brooklyn or the Bronx. Yet even more impressive is the fact Gambrell must take what I presume were bastardized versions of Russian words and translate them into a bastardized English word. Part of the effect and message in The Slynx is created by such bastardizations. Yet while terms like Oldeners, “feelosophy,” “newrottick,” the “elamentree preeceps of more-allity,” or a “spiritual runnysauce” are crucial to the overall feel, you can’t held but wonder how Gambrell arrived at them. For the sound of these words to convey their meaning while at the same time remaining true to the meaning and effect Tolstaya intended is translation above and beyond the ordinary.

Nothing should be taken away from Tolstaya either. The language and thought process of her narrator, Benedikt, gives unique insight into the world she has created. Despite the fact Benedikt, like his fellow residents, has a low grade intellect, he is a worthy vehicle for examining not only concepts of society, government and tyranny but also the joys – and logical ramifications – of an unbounded. virtually obsessive, love of books and reading. Despite being set in a future feudalism, The Slynx is perfused with literature, with Russian literary references that grow in number as the tale proceeds. Of course, that is perhaps something one might expect given that Tolstaya is the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy (although Alexander Pushkin is clearly a favorite here).

Tolstaya’s story is truly a novel perspective on Russian culture and history. Thanks to Gambrell’s translation, this edition ensures the humor and biting edge of the satire is fully comprehensible to the English reader.

That’s what they always say about booklets: food for the soul. And it’s true: you start reading and your belly doesn’t growl as much.

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx

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1 comment to Book Review: The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

  • Amy Brandon

    Your comments about this book make me think of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. You might enjoy it if you haven’t already read it.