Don DeLillo has said that his mammoth Underworld emerged from the juxtaposition of two headlines on the front page of a 1954 New York Times. One trumpeted a pennant-winning home run by the Giants’ Bobby Thomson. The other announced that the Russians had tested their first atomic bomb. Each, in its own way, was a shot heard ’round the world.
For anyone paying attention, the International section of this Saturday’s Times offered a similarly suggestive juxtaposition: three articles on a single page reported suspicious events in and around Vladimir Putin’s Russia. To wit: The Kremlin informed a group of dissident journalists that they were going to be evicted from their offices. Leaders of an opposition party, detained by police on thin pretenses, were forced to miss a protest rally. And the government of Estonia, which had offended Russian nationalists by taking down a monument to Soviet soldiers, had its Internet service disrupted by a ferocious denial-of-service attack (which originated from Russian servers). In each case, the reporter hesitated to blame Putin directly, but the overall picture is grim. And this is not even to mention the radiation poisoning plots, or the Chechen conflict. Basically, the man our president once certified as “a good soul” is consolidating power with a kommissarial zeal. The mystery is why the Russian people, after seven decades of totalitarian misrule and centuries of feudalism, are putting up with it.
A quick answer might be that, after the economic deprivations of the Communist era, they’re willing to trade freedom for a little prosperity. A more complicated one (not unrelated to the rise of ethnic gangs in Iraq) might involve the psychological toll totalitarianism exacts on its masses. Call it The Captive Mind, or Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s basically a protection racket: authority seems to offer insurance against violence, where freedom seems to leave one exposed. Give a kid enough bruises, and he’s likely to get in line behind the schoolyard bully. The problem comes when the bully runs out of other victims.
But a reading of Tatyana Tolstaya’s splendid contemporary novel The Slynx reminds us that the thirst for freedom and the hunger for authority are not merely the byproducts of Russia’s recent history. Rather, they are the reacting agents in much of the finest Russian literature. They lend the novels of Tolstaya’s great-uncle Leo – and the poems quoted by her characters in The Slynx – their signature phosphorescence. In the great American novel, the imperative to submit to something larger than oneself – tradition, law, religion – is usually an obstacle. Our Augies and Ishmaels and Rabbits set out to find their freedom. In Tolstoy’s Levin and Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs, individualism alternates – sometimes on the same page – with a sense that a greater freedom comes in accepting one’s duty and place in the world.
Is this a radical simplification? Of course. But I feel licensed to make it. No one likes to speculate about the Russian soul more than the Russians. I want to emphasize here that The Slynx succeeds, radiantly, as a self-contained work of art. But a view to Russia’s literary and political history can only enrich one’s reading.
The protagonist of The Slynx is a “golubchik” named Benedikt – born a century after a nuclear catastrophe has leveled Moscow and erased most cultural memory. Benedikt is a simple fellow, subsisting on mice and eking out an existence as a scrivener. He unquestioningly copies the decrees and poems written by Fyodor Kuzmich, the chief Murza of the village – even when those poems seem suspiciously Pushkinesque. Benedikt’s life strikes us as a nightmare of deprivation, but because he has nothing to compare it to, he doesn’t know it. His only inkling is a melancholy feeling that comes over him from time to time, which he blames on a mythical predator said to live in the forest… The Slynx.
Like a Russian George Saunders, Tolstaya creates a sci-fi bizarro world seemingly without effort – the details are there when she reaches for them. And, like Saunders, she renders her world in an entirely original idiom. Her depictions of life in the village of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk (natch) leaven poetic stream of consciousness with a salty and frequently hilarious orality. The effect Tolstaya creates, hovering between second- and third-person narration, is like nothing I’ve ever read. The narrator both is and isn’t Benedikt. Benedikt both is and isn’t us. Here’s a little taste, in Jamey Gambrell’s supple translation:
In the summer the Scribe is like an ordinary Golubchik – a sickle on his shoulder and into the fields and glades to cut goosefoot, horsetail. Bring in the sheaves. You tie them up – lug them to the shed, and go back again, another time, once more, all over, run, run, run. While he’s gone the neighbors or a stranger will filch a couple of sheaves for sure, sometimes from the field, sometimes straight from the shed. But that’s all right: they steal from me, and I’ll get good and mad and steal from them, those guys will steal from these guys – and so it goes in a circle. It comes out fair. Everyone steals, but everyone ends up with their own. More or less.
For the first half of the book, we keep rooting for him to awaken, like his Anglo counterparts in 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, to the dystopia he’s living in. As he discovers the source of Fyodor Kuzmich’s poems, and develops an appetite for books, consciousness-raising starts to seem inevitable. But – spoiler alert – consciousness will not prove to be synonymous with freedom. In fact, after aiding a putsch, Benedikt will become “Deputy for Defense and Marine and Oceanic Affairs.” Rather than living out his books, he seems content to live in them. More Bovary than Quixote.
Tolstaya is well-known in Russia as a television personality and an outspoken critic. She began her first and only novel under Gorbachev and finished it under Putin. In the West, where knowledge is seen as a path to freedom, the plot trajectory she arrived at may strike some readers as perverse. What at first seems an allegory of Communism becomes something more unsettling: an examination of our universal frailty.
In light of what’s happening in Moscow right now, the final pages of The Slynx take on a resonance almost too painful to countenance. History is not only a nightmare… in Russia, it seems to be a recurring one. Tolstaya preserves the possibility of an awakening, of a more personal socialism or a more collective freedom. But she’s not optimistic.