I am a butcher. Only I don’t work with meat, I work with words. Cutting, slicing, trimming. All for Vladimir, the great and powerful, and The Good Russian People. Give me War & Peace and I’ll hand you back a pamphlet. That’s progress, comrades. When they gave me the job they said that I would be serving my country by preventing the spread or dissemination of dangerous materials. Most people don’t realise how dangerous literature is. They focus too much on bombs and guns, and forget all about the clever metaphor. No one ever dropped a clever metaphor on a village of women and children, they say. Well, that means I’m doing my job properly. They’ll give me the Order of Lenin one day, no doubt. Recently I’ve been working on The Slynx. Cutting, slicing, trimming. It’s hard work, comrades. First, you have to read the book several times. You don’t want to miss anything, to let anything through that ought not to get through. Vladimir, the great and powerful, would not to be pleased. And when Vladimir is not pleased someone gets it. I thought about the title for a long time. Slynx. What is it? What does it mean? Is it some kind of code? According to Tolstaya, who wrote the book, it is a strange, mysterious creature that grew out of the nuclear explosion that has, in a sense, created the world that she describes. Well, ultimately I decided to get rid of it. The title, I mean. You can’t be too careful. I renamed the book The Sensible Adventures of Comrade Benedikt. There are a lot of weird creatures in the book; mutants, I guess you would call them. One woman has multiple cockscombs; there is a man with ears all over his body; another man can breathe fire. Tolstaya calls these defects or mutations Consequences. While I wasn’t too entertained by all that – in fact I found it rather silly and distracting – I let it go. I saw nothing in it to corrupt The Good Russian People. You have to be careful not to censor too much, otherwise our citizens will have nothing to read, to keep them busy and stop them from thinking for themselves. Stop Worrying, Let Vladimir Think For You, goes the popular slogan. Oldeners are people who were born before the blast, and survived it. They remember. Memory, comrades, is perhaps our most potent weapon. Sometimes I meet someone who can recall the original books, before I got my hands on them. ‘Where is the rest of it?’ they say.’ It’s all there, comrade,’ I reply. ‘My arse it is!’ they say, ‘I know something about books, comrade, and I can tell you that there is a character in this one called Bazarov.’ We were talking about Turgenev, of course. ‘And yet, now there is no Bazarov!’ I told him that he was imagining things. Bazarov! You made that up, comrade. Whoever heard of such a name, you silly shit! The problem with post-apocalyptic literature is that it is, generally speaking, not half as clever or inventive as the author thinks it is. Take The Slynx, for example. The blast has left people mutated, with strange powers? Ok then. And these people are ignorant of what existed before the blast? Dandy. The ignorant ones make mistakes about, mispronounce or misunderstand the things that existed before the blast, so that morality becomes more-allity, for example. Well. Let’s be honest, all this is pretty standard stuff, you really expect this sort of thing, it’s a formula. I once worked on Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, comrades, and I can tell you that The Slynx is very similar indeed. Very similar! Now, I’m not a writer myself, you know, I’m an editor, and being an editor I know something about authorial decisions, so to speak. If I could have spoken to Tolstaya I would have said, ‘comrade, does your book have to be so similar to other books of the same sort? Isn’t doing something that has been done many times before, with only minimal changes, rather pointless, in fact? ’ And she’d probably turn up her nose at me or laugh or call me an unpleasant name, like Kulak, but I would be right, of course. And she’d probably point out to me that The Slynx is a satire, that the ignorant masses are meant to represent our own ignorant masses, The Good Russian People. Sure, sure. But then I would likewise point out to citizen Tolstaya that satire, or allegory, is itself the province of the lazy and unimaginative, because it is necessarily obvious, otherwise the nincompoops wouldn’t get it. Take Kapek’s War with the Newts [which I wittled down to a still generous 30 pages], in which human beings colonise a race of newts. Well, the newts are, of course, meant to represent all the races or peoples that we have attempted to colonise ourselves. And one has to ask oneself, well, what was the point of that? It is as though satire allows you to do really obvious things, to make points even a child would grasp, just because you’ve changed humans to newts. No, comrades. If you want to want to write about colonisation, do so; it is artistic cowardice to hide behind a bunch of lizards. What elevates The Slynx is the narrative voice, which is buoyant and charismatic, although somewhat naïve and simple-minded, like Hucklebery Finn after a hard blow to the head. It is such a charming voice, albeit strongly reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal or even Gogol. Hrabal was a Czech novelist whom Vladimir, the great and powerful, despises. I once let one of his novels through, with major cuts of course, and Vladimir got so angry he punched a bear square in the face. That wasn’t very nice, if I may say so. Aleksy, the bear, wasn’t expecting it, having agreed to a wrestling not a boxing match. One of the hardest parts of my job is managing humour. It is very easy to ruin a funny book if you make too many alterations. For example, you might leave in three quarters of a joke and expunge the punchline. And that is bad. A joke without a punchline is like an army without a general. The Slynx, I must confess, is very funny indeed. It is not a sophisticated humour, because sophisticated humour is not actually funny, I’ve found. Sophisticated humour makes you smile, often with only one half of your mouth. Real humour, on the other hand, draws ugly sounds from your throat. I made some very conspicuous noises when reading this book. Fortunately, I work alone, and so no one would have heard me, except the spiders in the corners, and spiders won’t denounce you if you laugh at the wrong thing, comrades. For example, I was much amused by the izba where you pick up your wages by putting your hand in a narrow hole and grabbing what you can, hopefully without injuring your hand or arm too much, while the hole where you pay your taxes is wide, spacious and unlikely to harm you. I had to get rid of all that, obviously, but it did make me chuckle. I liked the Degenerators too. They are a kind of workhorse, hairy but with human features and the ability to speak. They pull troikas and sleighs. They are foul-mouthed. I imagine that they are the peasantry, the Muzhiks in Tolstaya’s world. Of course anything to do with the peasantry had to go, which is a shame as I think you would have got a kick out of the Degenerators. Sometimes I will cut something but save it for myself. This is foul weakness in me, I know. At home I have a scrapbook full of pages, quotes and phrases that are likely to unsettle The Good Russian People and lead them towards uselessness and a lack of right-thinking consciousness. I, however, as a government employee, am immune to that horrible potentiality. So I kept a little something from The Slynx.* I would also have liked to have taken home all the parts and pages about the recreation of culture, which obviously I had to eradicate, but I considered that too much of a risk. The Oldeners, if you recall, can remember life before the blast, and so they yearn for a return to that way of life. One of them, Nikita Ivanich, puts up signs to indicate what and where certain places used to be. I found that rather moving. He has Benedikt carve a wooden statue of Pushkin too, in an attempt to reconnect with the past. Of course, in our beloved Rus we are always surging towards the glorious future, a future helmed by Vladimir, the great and powerful, so this kind of soft peasant sentimentality is just not on. I’m ashamed, I tell you, but there was something in this retracing, this desire to remake a lost world – the manners, the monuments etc – that got to me, that made me blub, bub. I guess Tolstaya is making a serious point too, about how humanity is drawn towards culture, how we strive towards it. We need books and art, I guess. There is a lot written about literature in The Slynx. There are also numerous quotations throughout the text, mostly from our Russian writers. In my time, I see around me a weird kind of fetishisation of art, and books in particular, where people will loaf in shops smelling and caressing them. And of course this is classless decadence, but when you consider that citizen Tolstaya is Russian, and that people like me have censored works of literature for many years, her characters’ obsessions with books doesn’t seem so odd. For The Good Russian People a book is not just something you pick up at the store because H.R.H. Oprah Winfrey has had it stickered. You do not pass it on to your neighbour simply because you know that she likes brutal murders and bondage hanky-panky. A book is a statement, it is a kind of protest. It is, in short, a serious business. We Russians, at least, understand this. You do not suppress something unless you recognise its power, comrades.
*This is what I kept:
“I only wanted books—nothing more—only books, only words, it was never anything but words—give them to me, I don’t have any! Look, see, I don’t have any! Look, I’m naked, barefoot, I’m standing before you—nothing in my pants pockets, nothing under my shirt or under my arm! They’re not stuck in my beard! Inside—look—there aren’t any inside either—everything’s been turned inside out, there’s nothing there! Only guts! I’m hungry! I’m tormented!…”