The Slynx is a brilliantly imaginative satire set in a hypothetical Moscow two hundred years after an event termed "the Blast." The Blast has forever altered the landscape of Moscow. People now live with mutations, called Consequences. Some have cockscombs growing everywhere, some have three legs and then there are the Degenerators who are humans in doglike bodies. Some "Oldeners" still linger on. Their only Consequence is that they remain unchanged and seemingly live forever. They remember life before the Blast and moan the primitive cultural mores of the society they live in, where only the wheel has been invented thus far and the yoke is just catching on. This feudal landscape is ruled by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe, a tyrant who rules with an iron hand. Kuzmich passes off all Russian literature as his own works and issues decrees at the drop of a hat to keep the public ignorant and docile.
The primary protagonist of The Slynx is a young scribe, Benedikt. His job is to copy all of Kuzmich's "works" on to bark, for use by the public. Benedikt marries a coworker, Olenka, and discovers the wonder of books through his father-in-law, Kudeyar Kudeyarich. His father-in-law, however, harbors nefarious plans to oust the current regime. Benedikt's love of books soon turns ugly and Kudeyarich channels this force to implement his own evil designs.
The Slynx is translated fluidly by Jamey Gambrell. One wonders how she worked in intelligent phrases such as: "You feel sorry for someone. Must be feelosophy." Tolstaya's descriptions of the futuristic backdrop where people eat and trade mice as currency are bizarre yet not hugely so. Sometimes she seems to be so in love with her own creation that the storyline tends to wander. But she does not stray too far and her prose dripping with rich imagery more than makes up for it.
Tolstaya's futuristic Russia might not be very different from the one she often complains about. "Why is it that everything keeps mutating, everything?" laments an Oldener, "People, well all right, but the language, concepts, meaning! Huh? Russia! Everything gets twisted up in knots." The perils of a society in which "Freethinking" is a crime and where an indifferent populace can be "evil" are ably brought out by the gifted Tolstaya. "There is no worse enemy than indifference," she warns, "all evil in fact comes from the silent acquiescence of the indifferent." The scary "Slynx," in the novel, is a metaphor for all the evil that is waiting to rear its ugly head on a sleeping people.
The Slynx's descriptions of a tyrannical society might be too simplistic to apply to Russia. Its reception in the country has been mixed. The newspaper Vechernaya Moskva commented: "After all that we have read and thought over about Russia during the last fifteen years, this repetition of old school lessons is really confusing. There is a surfeit of caricatures of the intellegentsia, of anti-utopias depicting the degradation and decay of the national consciousness, and postmodernistic variations on the theme of literary-centrism." That having been said, Tolstaya's haunting prose serves as a chilling reminder of the way things could be, especially when government censorship and other controls move silently back in. The "Slynx" is never too far away. History, as they say, does tend to repeat itself.
The year 2001 was marked by the unprecedented success of four new books by Tatyana Tolstaya. Not only did she remind Russian readers of herself, she also joined, to the surprise of many, the ranks of the representatives of “topical literature.” The total circulation of Tolstaya’s books has reached almost 200,000 copies, and that means at least one thing for certain: the works of the writer have become the possession of all - from housewives to political scientists.
At the same time, you wouldn’t find Tolstaya among the Booker prizewinners, though it was she, and not Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who actually won this prize – that was the main nominee. The fact that she did not win has political rather than cultural significance, and not just because some members of the grand jury were too prejudiced or “politicized.” And not even because politics in this country have long been butting into the very heart of what has traditionally been called “literature.”
We are dealing with a different problem here. The Booker Prize situation showed that something has happened to the power in the hands of intelligentsia now. The very existence of that power has always been carefully concealed behind an apparent conflict between creators and the authorities. But now it seems quite clear that there is no such problem as a relationship between intelligentsia and power; it is a problem of intellectuals possessing power. Now this power in Russia is changing its structure and losing its former prerogatives. The figure of Tatyana Tolstaya - not only in view of ill-fated Booker - may help us realize what is going on.
The Year 2001. The Second Coming
Having begun with the memorable publication of The Golden Porch in 1983, she appeared momentarily in the perestroika mirage with her phantasmagoric quips about grandpa Lenin, and then disappeared for years into the unfamiliar world of American universities. But then Tolstaya decided surface again in 2001, without announcing her second coming publicly.
She did not come out at once - not before thorough marketing research and estimating the state of the market. In one of her essays from the Day collection, Tolstaya tells about the Russian writer Andrei Makin who lives in France and writes in French - how all of a sudden he won the Goncourt Award for his novel. But this Russian success at a French rendezvous does not seem to tempt Tolstaya. To all appearances, she would prefer a Russian rendezvous herself. Not that she is patriotic; TT just knows local rates and terms better.
Yet on its own, it’s not the surfacing of Tatyana Tolstaya that’s so intriguing. Rather it is because the event heralds one of the most remarkable cultural signs indicating that capitalism has come to Russia (I do not mean Tolstaya followed the steps of pulp writers Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova and other heralds of long-expected “liberalization” of the literary process. They were the first signs. Tolstaya is something altogether different).
So what is the relationship between Tolstaya and Russian capitalism? Why should her “second coming” be regarded as a cultural sign?
I give an immediate answer: TT has turned the complexes of the intelligentsia into a commercial literary product that just happened to be competitive on the market. It was a natural outcome of glorifying and legalizing market relations that the “thinking stratum” of our society had engaged in for so long.
On the Role of the Intelligentsia in History
Karl Marx once said that a landowner belongs to the land - it inherits him. An intellectual trendsetter belongs to the intelligentsia which, in its turn, gives him or her a chance to become its heir, a recipient of moral and spiritual traditions, an authorized steward of the monopolistic right to be the nation’s conscience.
Tolstaya is as adequate for this role as no other lady writing contemporary Russian prose. On the one hand, she is too smart to show any sympathy for homespun righteous patriots, talking about roots, spirituality and collectivism. On the other hand, she is too fastidious to openly show any relationship between her ideas and the views of liberal technocrats and reformers of the early 90’s.
The intelligentsia in modern communities is turning into a secularized aristocracy and a social group that still insists on the immutability of its status, in a time when status privileges, ranks and ordinances of the feudal times have lost their sacred inviolability. What is its persistence based upon? The main problem of the intelligentsia is that it has always confused two things: an opportunity to talk about people and the need to talk on behalf of the people. On the one hand, intellectuals possessed their own conscience; on the other hand, they had a perspective to become someone else’s conscience.
The preoccupation with literature, in particular, with fiction, in Russian culture was the main reason why writing has been identified for ages with performing a moral duty. The man of letters was assigned a kingly place in the cloud-castles of the nation’s spirit. Not that contemporary writers have refuted or questioned this formula. But unlike writers of the past, they no longer believe in it, though they stick to the old status quo.
Tolstaya is no exception here: her skeptical attitude - the invariable mask of all-knowing irony - is a sure evidence of this fact. She certainly does not believe in all this rubbish: nation, spirit and cloud-castles are nothing but literary conventions to her. TT is well aware of the fact that there are no cloud-castles, no spirit and no nation in reality. And these phenomena do not demand faith from their people any longer. But it is quite enough to make oneself comfortable and take the crown and scepter of the First Literary Lady, a post so carefully nurtured and kept by those phantoms that no one believes in anymore.
This attitude is now described as the technology of literary success.
Everybody knows the famous predecessors and ancestors of TT: Alexei Tolstoy and Mikhail Lozinsky. She is said to have inherited an outstanding literary style from the former and indifference towards politics from the latter (it is well known that her grandfather Alexei was a sort of “a nobleman among the Soviet lower-middle class” while Lozinsky shunned politics, engaging himself instead in translations, and thus winning the reputation of an intellectual, pedant and bookish man).
But the idea of this literary inheritance is a result of a mere superfluous impression: Tolstaya’s style really is refined on its own (though at times, even when she tries to experiment, as in her Kysya, it smacks of intentional old-regime flavor, so fashionable nowadays). Nevertheless, Tolstaya’s indifference towards politics is no more, than… a political stand that has long been the lot of the “artistic” intelligentsia.
There’s no easier way to become the kingly “All-seeing Eye” and to gain control over hearts and souls than to declare your own estrangement from Power, for you have to be at least at odds, if not at “daggers drawn” with a regime. In fact, this is the best way for a writer to gain influence, since it allows him to conceal the very fact of its seizure and make it practically unnoticeable. You ensure your own independence and might by withstanding the mythical Power as such. This principle is the cornerstone that has backed the Russian intelligentsia in all times. The more invisible and imperceptible any power is, the firmer its “foundations.” It’s no accident that enlistment in the cultural elite is subject to the bureaucratic principle in our country: once you landed in the wide range, you would hardly ever be excluded from the tight ranks of “culture masters” (if you stick to certain rules, of course).
Aesthetics and Struggle, or on Muses and Angels
TT hates the Soviet regime, but maintains at best a nerveless altercation with the present one. Still, it is with Soviet power that Tolstaya is so closely bound by the genetic ties of struggle. This is quite obvious. She struggles against everything within easy reach: against plaster-made Lenin busts, against barrack-type egalitarianism, against commonness which is so odious that you feel a cramp in your jaws, against the hypocritical enthusiasm of collectivism, against the bureaucratic formality of rooms and facilities, against mandatory “celebrations” with their hollow, mechanical speeches and against other abominations which have become symbols of "the Soviets." This whole struggle has become the flesh and blood of TT, an inseparable part of her own Ego.
TT failed to realize that by making her description of the struggle and the struggle itself an art form, she had discarded the very possibility of a different aesthetic, in whose context the much-hated Soviet symbols of her childhood lost their repulsiveness. To some, the festivities and the buildings, the parades and the busts, all those ingredients of Soviet equality that was not too hospitable and thrifty, were the embodiment of a familiar and comfortable environment. That familiarity not only promised, but also personified genuine, earthly, non-fictitious welfare. But to others, each of those symbols was evidence of a great, vanguard experiment, an unprecedented transformation of life, the incarnate dream of the world’s rearrangement and the new order with its mobilized masses, never before involved in politics so intensely. This second group saw the embodiment of this great, vanguard experiment almost in everything: from art to everyday life.
But Tolstaya accepted neither view, which one assumes to be mutually exclusive at first glance. She rejected the very possibility of different aesthetics. Thus, Tolstaya is frightened by Malevich’s gaping black square, a black gullet of the Revolution. She sees nothing but death, chaos and oblivion in this abyss.
Having shrunk back, failing to notice any token of inspiration in the artistic and political Avant-garde or any shoots of life rooted in the revolutionary process, TT could find no other alternative but the muses and angels perceived in the spirit of old-regime, pre-Revolutionary grandeur; for some reason she considers this old fashioned style less pragmatic and worldly, more beautiful and refined.
At that, Tolstaya does not forget about the most important thing: muses and angels do not submit to either aesthetic trends or to our ideas of their role in history.
A writer in Russia is more than just a writer. A writer in our country is also a language custodian, and the language takes the place of anything else a writer may claim: intellect, imagination, civil duty and moral choice, if you will pardon my saying so. In other words, in this case the language is everything to those who are really nothing without it.
As long as writers are a role-model of intelligence in our country (and you know too well that the artistic intelligentsia in particular, is still our national conscience), they substitute simple writing aids and appliances for their own conscience. Those aids are not as harmless as one might think. Having wielded them, a person of letters, so far as he no longer shuns the role of the “Russian intelligentsia” represented in the traditional, essentially Western understanding (Tolstoy-Dostoyevsky, the mysterious Russian soul, suffering/trial/reward, the best part of the worst whole, struggling against oppression, challenging indigenous ignorance and low culture, unselfish love for the West and, generally speaking, vodka, balalaika, matryoshka), obtains access to some very artful weapons of power that can hardly be perceived with a naked eye.
What can be controlled with the help of these instruments? The answer is not that difficult: they do not control our behavior in the outer world, for this is the responsibility of political authorities, but they help gain control over our thoughts which, in their turn, control our conduct and supervise our “inner world.” Mellow academic “language keepers,” light-winged creators of literary styles and trends, critics craftily passing the existing reality off as a matter of course - all those professionals of belles-lettres are not as harmless as you may think. Of course, they cannot exactly determine what we think, but you may be sure that they strongly influence the way we think, especially in this country.
This means only one thing: if you still decide to answer the question: what is Tatyana Tolstaya for Russia? - perhaps you’ll eventually be at a loss and will have to admit: Tolstaya is still something more than just Tolstaya in Russia.