The Slynx starts out as the story and imaginings of a none-too-bright protagonist named Benedikt, living near where Moscow used to be, two hundred years after “the Blast.” He is a government employee who scrapes by as a scribe for children’s books in the winter and a turnip farmer in the summer.
Benedikt has no idea what caused “the Blast,” but says that “people were playing around and played too hard with someone’s arms.” He and many of his fellow post-apocalyptic citizens have a “Consequence” like a tail, claws, or horns. Those who have too many mutations are called “Degenerators” and used to pull the sleighs of high-ranking government workers. Some of those who were alive before the blast are, for some unexplained reason, still alive and unaging, still quoting the books and poems of a lost culture and largely ignored by their descendants, who call them “oldeners.”
From a simple scribe who thinks the story of the Gingerbread Man is “sad” and that touching a pre-apocalyptic book will cause him to fall ill with radiation sickness, Benedikt becomes, after his marriage to a local girl, an undiscerning but voracious reader and a government official in charge of seizing pre-apocalyptic books.
As a scribe, Benedikt copies down the occasional governmental decree, sent from the “Greatest Murza,” like about the “Holiday of New Year” which should be celebrated “the First of March” and “like this:”
“chop down a tree in the forest, not too big but full, so that it will fit in your izbas but if you want you can put it in the yard. Stick this free in the floor or wherever you can, so it stands up, and hang all sorts of stuff on its branches depending on what you’ve got. It could be colored threads braided together, or nuts, firelings, or whatever you can spare around the house, all kinds of junk always piles up in the corner and it might come in handy. Tie this stuff on tight so it doesn’t fall off on top of you.”
When an oldener dies, Benedikt is perplexed by the documents called for at her funeral, the sound of which makes him giggle because “all these words were so funny, total gibberish,” words like:
“Party cards, Komsomol or trade union ID?…State lottery tickets? Domestic loan bonds? Employment records? Writers or Artists Union cards? No Drivers’ licenses of any sort? Trucks? Passenger vehicles? Tractor trailers? No? Leases? Subscription forms? Gas or telephone bills? Collective antenna registration documents? Receipts for overpayment?”
These words make the oldeners cry, and one of them tries to explain, saying “This was our whole life….A whole way of life…”
When it is revealed that the oldener has left “instructions for a meat grinder,” there is a long eulogy, during which the representative of the “Monument Preservation Society” says that “The most important thing is to preserve our spiritual heritage! The object itself may not exist, but there are instructions for its use, we have its spiritual—no, I do not fear that word—will and testament, a missive from the past!”
At the funeral, one of the oldeners, Nikita Ivanich, takes Benedikt under his wing and proposes that they will carve a wooden figure of Pushkin to remind people of their culture. He also informs him that most men don’t have tails, and Benedikt is confused: “how is it that now it turns out it’s not normal? All wrong? Holy moly! Maybe his privates—his prudential, in book talk—are also wrong? Take a look, Nikita Ivanich!”
Nikita Ivanich, an oldener, has what he describes as “an unusual Consequence, a rather convenient one,” which is that he can breathe fire. He kindles fires for those who have let their household fires go out. After the funeral of the woman with instructions for a meat grinder, he tells Benedikt that he might also die one day, and then they will need to learn how to make fire for themselves. Benedikt is totally clueless, saying “Where would we get fire from? It’s a mystery! It can’t be known! Where does it come from?”
Although Benedikt, after his marriage, has access to his father-in-law’s large library, he is an indiscriminate reader who doesn’t understand very much of what he reads. When he realizes he has read everything his father-in-law owns, he lists it all, going on for three pages, by first name or title: “Kafka, Kama River Steamboats, Kashas Derived from Whole Grain, Dial M for Murder, Murder in Mesopotamia, Murder on the Orient Express, Kirov’s Murder, Laudanum: The Poetic Experience, Lilliputians and Other Little People, Limonov, Lipchitz, Lipid-protein Tissue Metabolism…”
Benedikt understands little of what Nikita Ivanich tries to teach him, including why their wooden figure of Pushkin needs restoration soon after they’ve put it up:
“Fixing, Benya, he needs fixing! The rain, the snow, the birds…they’ve all taken their toll. If he were only made of stone! I won’t even mention bronze, we’re nowhere near having bronze. And then there’s the people—people are utter savages: they tie a rope around him, and hang their laundry on freedom’s bard! Underwear and pillowcases—barbarians!”
“But Nikita Ivanich, you were the one who always said the people’s path to him should never be overgrown. And now you’re complaining.”
“Oh, Lord…Benya…That was a figure of speech.”
The funniest part of this book is when Benedikt offers to bring Nikita and the other oldeners a book “about freedom…about everything. It teaches how to make freedom.” They ask who the author is and finally Benedikt remembers that it’s “Plaiting and Knitting Jackets. ‘When knitting the armhole we cast on two extra loops for freedom of movement. We slip them on the right needle, taking care not to tighten them excessively.” Although he can remember the words he has read, Benedikt doesn’t seem to be able to recognize the concepts.
Eventually Benedikt begins to suspect even Nikita Ivanich of hiding books from him, and in his simple mind, this cannot be allowed to happen: “Books shouldn’t be kept at hme, and whoever keeps them shouldn’t hide them, and whoever hides them should be treated.”
Benedict has a sharp hook, a mandate from the Greatest Murza, and an increasing obsession, finding a book to tell him how to live. “By summer Benedikt’s hook flew like a bird. Yaroslav was checked—and nothing was found: Rudolf, Myrtle, Cecilia Albertovna, Trofim, Shalva—nothing: Jacob, Vampire, Mikhail, another Mikhail, Lame Lyalya, Estachius—nothing. He bought Brades’ Tables at the market—just numbers. He’d like to catch that Brades, and stuff his head in a barrel.”
Finally Benedikt and his father-in-law decide to have a revolution:
“We need Kant in our hearts and a peaceful sky above our heads. There’s a law like that,” Benedikt remembered.
“True enough. And it’s us against the tyrants. Agreed?”
“We’ll ravage the oppressor’s nest, okey dokey?”
“Oh, Papa, he’s got books piled high as the snow!”
“Aaah, my dear, even higher. And he tears pictures out of them.”
“Quiet, I don’t want to know,” said Benedikt, gritting his teeth.
“I can’t be quiet! Art is in peril!” Father-in-law exclaimed sternly. “There is no worse enemy than indifference! All evil in fact comes from the silent acquiescence of the indifferent. You read Mumu, didn’t you? Did you understand the moral? How he kept silent all the time, and the dog died.”
“Papa, but how—“
“Know-how, that’s how. I’ve thought the whole thing through. We’ll make a revolution.”
They kill the former Great Murza with their hooks and take over his library, ignoring the many famous poems about rebellion and tyranny open on the table in favor of writing their own decrees, including Benedikt’s own, first dictated by his father-in-law as “The reading of Oldenprint books is permitted” but written down by him as he finally feels that he can “understand the governmental approach….Benedikt straightened his shoulders, laughed, stuck out the end of his tongue, and carefully wrote in the word ‘not’ in between ‘is’ and ‘permitted.’”
He has become what he feared; his father-in-law tells him that he has become the slynx.
The slynx is the real subject of this book–what we should fear, what is always just outside the warm, lighted circle of our understanding. The book is written for a reader more intelligent than its protagonist, but probably, fatalistically, less intelligent than the authors in it who continue to be collected and read without discrimination or understanding.