dystopia

MOTORMAN BY DAVID OHLE

1.

Night times. Night man in the nightmare house.

The Kid blew orange smoke from wheezing mouth. The house didnotfalldown.

But he almost did.

2.

He had read Motorman. Read it twice, The Kid. It’s short on almost everything. It’s not a novel, he’d told Beagle. It has no pulse.

He thought about Moldenke, but what he thought was mysterious.

3.

“Listen up, jackass.”

“I’m listening.”

“That Moldenke,” said Beagle.

“…”

4.

That Moldenke, it is written, is puzzled, it is stated, by almost every phenomena.

He is likened, please note, to a rat.

Also: a brightly burning candle with a shortened wick, destined to burn low and give off gas.

5.

The phone rang in The Kid’s blue apartment.

“Listen, kid, give up this Moldenke business.”

“Hello? Can I help you?”

“Don’t be a jackass.”

6.

Bunce is the key; only the key is made of jelly.

And the lock is broken.

7.

With concentrated thought, The Kid tried to drown out the midnight drone, which itself was drowning out the scuttling of the night man as he ranged about the room. Bunce, he told himself, is in control. Of the lighting and of Moldenke. He tells Moldenke to do things, like put his hand in his pocket.

Reflexively, The Kid put his own hand in his pocket.

He rummaged around, and brought up air.

8.

Beagle had sent The Kid a questionnaire:

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The Kid considered these questions, unanswered.

9.

The world of Motorman, the two suns, the air.

The dying wind.

The artificial, the month, the mock war.

The resemblance to something like sky.

10.

Bunce wants blood. Or might want it.

Like the night man with Weetabix hair.

The unpinning threat of violence.

11.

The Kid called Beagle.

“Bunceresidence.”

He hung up the phone.

12.

Two days later he flicked on the TV. Beagle facing front:

“There’s a lot of weirdness, kid. A lot of odd shit. Don’t let yourself brood. Maybe you’re not meant to understand, huh? You thought of that? So there are jellymen, so what. Maybe you misdialled, huh? Maybe you got the wrong number? The wrong face in the crowd? Stop shouting out names in the hope that someone will turn around. Move on, Moldenke.”

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THE GLASS BEES BY ERNST JÜNGER

If you have been following my reviews you will know that I have spent a significant number of weeks in Prague this year. I have already shared many stories pertaining to my time in that city, but there is one that I have been keeping in reserve. One Saturday night I lost my friend in the classy [it isn’t classy] Lucerna nightclub. Upon exiting the building at 4am I realised that not only had my phone died, but that I also did not know my way back to the hotel, nor even, in my inebriated state, remember its name. I tried, first of all, to enlist the help of a taxi driver, but with his little English and my little Czech, we amicably agreed to drop the matter. Next, I approached the locals, and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be a foreigner in need, rather than simply a tourist, for they all treated me with either suspicion or disdain.

At this point, I began to pray; not to God, of course, but to my phone. I made promises, extravagant promises, to it in return for a little juice, a few moments of illumination, one bar, anything, so that I could call or text or, and this thought was almost too much to bear, use google maps to navigate a route back to the hotel. But it wasn’t to be; the phone had forsaken me; and so I set off. To where? To nowhere, to anywhere. I walked. Head up. Feet dancing to a peculiar rhythm. After a while I spotted two people, or, to be precise, I heard them. Their voices were familiar. English voices. Northern English voices. The two girls were from Wigan, a place I had staunchly avoided throughout my life, but which now seemed glorious to me, and, no, they did not mind if I walked with them, for they were lost too.

Of course, eventually I found my way to my back to the Residence Leon D’Oro, sometime around 6am, but that is not important, not relative to this review anyway. What has stayed with me in terms of this experience is the experience. Had my phone not died I would never have trawled the streets of Prague in the early hours of the morning in the company of two girls; the friendship we shared for a short period of time, which was precious to me then, and remains precious to me now, would have been denied me. Indeed, isn’t it the case that many of the forms of technological progress that have found their way into our everyday lives, while claiming to bring people together, often, and for prolonged periods of time, in reality keep us apart? Are these machines improving our lives or destroying them? Obviously, I am not alone in my concerns; the science fiction community has engaged with them on more than one occasion. Yet it was something of a surprise to find similar ideas present in the novel under review here, The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger, which was published in 1957.

“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other.”

In terms of plot, of which there isn’t a great deal, the focus is on Richard, a former cavalryman who narrates the book. He is in a dire financial predicament, which has put a strain on his marriage and led to him having to sell most of his possessions; in turn, he has approached an old colleague, Twinnings, who appears to be some kind of employment broker or agent. It is this man who puts Richard in contact with Zapparoni, whose [very successful] business is in robotics. Richard is, therefore, at a low ebb; in fact, I have come across few characters who are as relentlessly disappointed, and self-critical, as he is. Indeed, he points out that a chief of staff once called him an ‘outsider with defeatist inclinations,’ an assessment he goes to great lengths to validate. He is ‘suspicious’ and ‘quickly hurt’; he is ‘a man of failure’ who is ‘not suited to deal with money or earn it’; he has ‘experienced much but accomplished little’, and so on.

However, what is fascinating about Richard is not that he is dissatisfied with the way that his life has unfolded, in terms of material gain, but rather that he is a ‘man out of time.’ Consider, first of all, his former occupation: the army. This is significant because it brings to mind values such as honour, bravery, discipline, comradeship, integrity, and so on. These values, he finds, are not compatible with civilian life, but specifically with the modern, capitalist way of life. Indeed, he states himself that he is ‘old fashioned’, that he is ‘one of those people who still wasted their time with scruples, while all the others, who pocketed whatever profit was offered, looked down on me.’ A significant proportion of The Glass Bees is devoted to Richard’s army anecdotes, to his wistful reminiscences about what life, or his life, used to be like, when he felt more at home in the world.

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In this way, The Glass Bees is something of a lament, or a requiem; it is one man looking at the world and concluding that it has, irrevocably, gone to shit. And that, moreover, technology has played a prominent role in this. Horses, for example, are, according to Richard, ‘doomed’; these ‘magnificent creatures’ have ‘disappeared from the fields and streets, from the villages and towns.’ ‘Everywhere,’ he continues ‘they have been replaced by automatons.’ Being a former cavalryman, he focusses specifically on war, of course, which is now waged with machines; it is a robot war, involving tanks and guns, not horses and swords; and these machines are levellers, they can make a titan of ‘a pimply lad from the suburbs.’ Technology has meant that war is no longer reserved for skilled, brave and noble men [although this may never have actually been the case] and, perhaps more significantly, made it so that it is no longer a fight, but murder instead. One can apply this idea to other areas of life too, for hasn’t technology made it so that some things are too easy? Skill, experience, all kinds of human qualities have been made redundant by machines.

If Richard is a man out of time, it would be tempting to say of Zapparoni that he is the new man, the man time of the times, or even of a time to come. He is said to have ‘money to burn’, having achieved a monopoly in his field; and one cannot, we’re told, open a paper or magazine or sit in front of a screen without seeing his name. All of which sounds familiar, but not necessarily prescient. His work is in robotics, as previously stated, but I’m not particularly interested in these designs, and so will not linger over them. What I do want to touch upon is the idea that ‘in his opinion, nature was inadequate, both in its beauty and logic, and should be surpassed.’ Does Zapparoni consider himself to be a God? Or is it rather that he believes that he can improve upon God’s work? Certainly this is an attitude that we do encounter much these days, not solely in the field of robotics, but also in cosmetic surgery,  genetic engineering, etc.

The Glass Bees is barely 200 pages long, and I have only scratched the surface of what it contains, but this review, I hope, goes some way to showcasing how complex, how intelligent, imaginative and challenging it is. It may also, and this is maybe more important to me personally, have given some idea of how moving it is. This is, make no mistake, a very sad book. It would be easy to dismiss it as the reactionary, curmudgeonly grumblings of a miserable old man, especially when you consider that Jünger was himself a former soldier, and a passionate advocate of that way of life; but that would be missing the point entirely. For me, the German exposes our arrogance, our irresponsibility, and our negligence towards the world and towards each other; and he gives powerful voice to his, and to my, dismay. ‘The beauty of the forests was past,’ he writes, which is to say that it exists but we no longer notice or appreciate it. Well, not until one night your phone dies.

WAR WITH THE NEWTS BY KAREL CAPEK

A few years ago a friend of mine sent me an email containing a link to a newspaper article. This article referred to the discovery of, if I remember correctly, a previously unknown type of lobster. Underneath the article my friend had written: ‘How long before this ends up on a plate in some restaurant?’ To which I replied with something like: ‘They’ll probably dissect it or fuck it first.’ It has long been a running joke between us that with anything we – by which I mean human beings – encounter on this planet our instinct is to see if there is some way that we can exploit it. All in the name of progress, of course, a progress that, it strikes me, has always been, and will always be, paid for with gallons of blood.

Karel Čapek was a Czech writer, whose work – including plays, essays, novels – was published in the early part of the 20th century. He is probably most well-known for coining the term robot, but his dystopian novel War With the Newts appears to have become the go-to text, the one that, if Čapek is read at all, is most popular with modern readers. In short, the book describes the discovery of a species of intelligent newts by a Captain Van Toch, a Czech seaman, who teaches them how to speak, and how to fight their enemies [the sharks], in return for pearls. While at this stage, the relationship between man and newt could be said to be mutually beneficial and respectful, it does not take long before they are being ruthlessly exploited and oppressed.

“Besides, people never regard anything that serves and benefits them as mysterious; only the things which damage or threaten them are mysterious.”

Even on the basis of this brief description it ought to be clear that War With the Newts is not solely concerned with amphibious creatures. It is, indeed, generally considered to be a satire, an allegorical story pertaining to colonialism, whereby the newts are a stand-in for any number of indigenous peoples. I have repeated myself numerous times recently regarding my dissatisfaction with allegory and certain kinds of satire, but this book is, in my opinion, one of the more amusing, successful and complex examples. So, while there is some fairly obvious stuff about slave trading – the ‘dark-skinned’ newts are captured and sent all around the world to work for human masters – there are also more subtle and interesting barbs.

For example, the newts have a ritual, a kind of native dance that periodically takes place at night. This dance is considered by humans to be dubious in some vague way, as something to be suspicious of; and as the newts become more ‘civilised’ [i.e. humanised] they too, it is said, come to feel ashamed of it. Furthermore, Van Toch’s arming of the newts is significant. He, as noted, respects them, he gives them knives so that they can defend themselves, but he does not do so for purely altruistic reasons, but also in order to, in a sense, have access to their natural resources [the pearls under the sea]. This is very similar to what the UK and US governments have done in places like Iraq, where we have given them our cast-offs, our out-of-date weapons etc, in return for oil.

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One of the most rewarding, and surprising, aspects of Čapek’s novel, his allegory, is that, unlike with something like The Master and Margarita, the Czech was able to breathe life into his characters, both in terms of the oppressed and the oppressors. The newts are charming and likeable, and therefore their fate, their treatment at the hands of human beings, is moving. Take Andy, the lizard at London Zoo, who learns to speak English and reads the newspapers. His interview with the authorities is one of the novel’s highlights, as he answers the questions with information he has picked up in the media. Then there is the Czech-speaking newt who makes friends with a holidaying Czech couple. He longs to visit his homeland, a land he has not and will never see! The creatures are, by and large, innocent, funny, trusting, intelligent; they are like precocious children, and one cannot help but feel for them and want to protect them. Likewise, the blustering Van Toch isn’t merely a one- dimensional, heartless profiteer; in fact, it is not until he has passed away that the newts are exposed to the worst human behaviour, for it is said that he would not have allowed them to be brutalised while he was alive [and here we see a subtle psychological distinction between exploitation and severe physical mistreatment].

What gives the novel even greater depth is that it just as engaging, if not more so, if one overlooks the allegory and takes it on face value. In this way, it has a lot to say about the treatment of animals and the importance of animal welfare. First of all, to return to Andy, he dies when he is fed too many sweets by well-meaning, but careless or thoughtless, people. Think about certain fat cats or dogs you may have seen, which are habitually ‘treated’ by owners who do not understand or take seriously the responsibility of looking after an animal. Čapek also touches upon the use of exotic animals for amusement or spectacle, such as those poor tigers and bears one encounters in certain countries. In War with the Newts one man has himself a very ill show lizard, which is made to perform in a tent. Likewise, one could see the working newts as akin to the animals that we use or have used for farming, for pulling carriages; things like pit ponies and so on. There is even a mention of newt farming, when it wasn’t until very recently that battery farming became a hot topic.

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This is a book that is teeming with ideas, with intelligence and compassion; and there is so much more that one could focus on or discuss [I haven’t even mentioned tyranny, socialism, fascism]. I don’t, however, want to go over everything, I would like to leave some things for you to discover for yourself. Having said that, I am going to write a few sentences about one further notable theme, one that particularly interests me, which is the arrogance of the human race as it seeks to impose its will on the natural world and have it reflect himself. Once it is discovered that the newts can speak, numerous countries are adamant that they ought to speak their language; there is a drive to get them to wear clothes, etc. This is something I have touched upon before in other reviews, but, to reiterate, I find the obsession to remake non-human things in our image absurd and really quite depressing. One could, of course, also see this attitude as a comment on colonialism, in that what these people are essentially saying is that something is only worthwhile if it is like me; and this is how certain indigenous people are and have been treated. So, if they do things like we [civilised Europeans] do, well, then that is ok, they are human beings, and deserve rights and all that, but if they do not? If they eat things we wouldn’t eat? If they speak a language we do not understand? Savages! Barbarians! Sub-humans!

“Gentlemen, four-fifths of the earth’s surface is covered by seas; that is unquestionably too much; the world’s surface, the map of oceans and dry land, must be corrected. We shall give the world the workforce of the sea, gentlemen. This will no longer be the style of Captain van Toch; we shall replace the adventure story of pearls by the hymnic paean of labour.”

I was asked the other day to describe War With the Newts and, not wanting to give the impression that it is a piece of fluff, a silly b-movie in novel form, I said that it is ‘Moby Dick crossed with Dr. Strangelove.’ Some of what I have written so far ought to give weight to this statement. Like Dr. Strangelove it is a superior satire; like Melville’s great novel it is open to numerous compelling interpretations, etc. One other thing that is worth mentioning in this regard is Čapek’s  style. The novel includes chapters that stand as excellent short stories, newt anecdotes, newspaper articles, some fairly rigorous science, and engaging little essays [the best of these being Wolf Meynert’s communistic interpretation of the newt community and their glorious future!]. One is given all kinds of information about the creatures – their history, their biology, and much more – so that one comes to feel as though one is something of an expert on them. War with the Newts is an immersive experience, an in-depth look into the world of newts in the same way that Moby Dick is for whales. And now that I have read the book, now that I have had this experience, I can say that, in the event of war, I am firmly with the newts, man. Fuck humanity, we’ve had our chance.

WE BY ZEVGENY ZAMYATIN

I realised some time ago that I need freedom in all aspects of my life, that without it I become surly and depressed. My commitment fears; my intense, relentless fantasies about escape; my interest in creative subjects or activities; even the animals I admire [foxes, wolves, hares]: it all comes back to the same thing. Moreover, when I think back to my schooldays or any job I have had I’m immediately struck by how resistant I am to authority, so that if anyone tries to tell me what to do, or if it is demanded that I behave like everyone else, I immediately [childishly, perhaps] rebel. For example, whenever I was set a task in class, specifically in English or Art or Philosophy, subjects that I associated with a lack of rules, I would disregard it and do my own thing. Most of the time my teachers and lecturers accepted my work, welcomed it even, but there were occasions when I clearly pissed them off. I remember one time we were asked to write a story, and I made a suggestion about what I wanted to do, and this was rejected. And so I wrote something about murder and sodomy instead, and ended up getting dragged in front of the headmaster.

In this way, I am the opposite of D-503, the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential dystopian novel We, at least in the beginning anyway. When we meet D-503 he is a happy and productive drone, a mathematician [of course!] and engineer who is helping to build the Integral, which is a sort of space-rocket that is part of a plan to bring the One State’s ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ to other planets and civilisations [by force if necessary!]. Everything in the One State is regulated, is by appointment. You wake up, go to work, have your leisure time, etc when you are told to, at the prescribed hour; indeed, there is a Table of Hours, in which the greater part of your life is mapped out.

In Zamyatin’s future world, the focus is not on the I, but on the we. The One State is like a machine, and while people do have a defined function or role within it, it is the machine that takes precedence. Individuality is a threat to the perfect running of the machine, because individuals, with their own unique hopes and dreams and desires, are unpredictable. However, as noted, D-503 is not only happy to accept the prevailing conditions, the restricted or unfree mode of living, but is, in fact, convinced of its rightness and logicality. He also frequently scoffs at the Ancients [i.e. us] whose lives were defined by chaos, at one point dismissing our love of clouds, which for him spoil the perfect sterile blue of the sky.

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[From a series of images based on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We by Eda Akaltun]

Bearing all this in mind, one can see why We is often thought to be a comment upon, a critique of, Communism, or at least a warning or prediction of what Communism might lead to. Communism, on the most basic level, advocates a classless society, whereby everyone has the same status, and what is produced by the collective or community is shared equally or according to one’s needs. Therefore, We, and specifically the One State, where everyone dresses the same, has a number for a name, etc, could be considered to be a Communist state taken to its logical conclusion. Yet, for me, the One State utopia ought not to be compared to a specific political movement. If it is the model for anything it is a number of dictatorial regimes, most of which are/were not Communistic [although there is, of course, something of a connection between Communism and tyranny]. The inhabitants of the One State are dictated to by a supreme leader called the Benefactor, who cannot be voted out of power; and those who rebel, or do not do as they are told, are publicly liquidated. Yet, even this interpretation is unsatisfactory, because there is no sense that the people, the cyphers or drones, are being exploited or generally mistreated.

Perhaps the most interesting interpretation of what is going on in We is that it is a kind of retelling of the Adam and Eve story. The heart of that story is the question of whether it is better to live free and have the potential to be unhappy, or to have no free will but guaranteed happiness [i.e. to never feel pain etc], and this is also what Zamyatin asks you to consider. In the beginning of the book, D-503 [Adam] is living in a state of blissful ignorance. He then meets I-330 [Eve], and together they taste the forbidden fruit of freedom by doing things that are against the rules. In doing so, they cause trouble in Paradise [the One State] and piss off God [the Benefactor]. Was D-503 better off not knowing 1-330? Was he happier having never experienced obsession, jealousy, rage etc? Possibly, but I’m personally an advocate of letting your soul get a little dirty from time to time.

However, I must confess that if all that was all the novel had to offer, if it was simply a political or religious allegory or satire, I might not have made it to the end. I’m on record regarding my dissatisfaction with satire and allegory, and I don’t want to go over that again, except to say that, for me, satirical or allegorical dystopian novels are often not nearly as inventive, clever or funny as they think they are. So, for example, when we are told that D-503 finds it odd that the results of our [the Ancients] elections aren’t known beforehand like theirs are, where there is only one candidate [the Benefactor], I might smile slightly to myself, and think ‘yeah, I see what you’ve done there,’ but I’m hardly knocked out by how profound this observation is. Moreover, for a book that is credited with such foresight and prescience, We also suffers from feeling rather dated or too familiar, mostly owing to the writers [Orwell, Huxley etc] who were heavily influenced by the Russian’s work and used it for the basis of their own.

“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

What I did find engaging, and what, for me, ensures that We is still worth reading, that it will always be worth reading, is the prose style and what Zamyatin had to say about love. When we meet D-503 he is involved in a pseudo-relationship with O-90, a rather chubby and cheery non-entity. D-503 doesn’t love her, but, rather, there is a kind of mindless acceptance of the situation, as though it is a duty fulfilled. Yet when D-503 meets I-330 his world [literally] changes. Crucially, I-330 is different to O-90; O-90 is comfortable, safe, obliging. I-330, on the other hand, is mysterious and maddening. Throughout the text there are frequent references to lips and mouths, and it is telling that O-90’s is described as ‘inviting’ D-503’s words, while’s I-330’s contains sharp teeth.

So, while we may be dealing with future worlds and all that, D-503’s initial situation is the age-old human predicament of being caught between two women, of having a nice but dull girlfriend, but feeling drawn to someone more challenging. Ah, yes, we’ve all been there D. Yet just when you think that We is going to be a sci-fi Age of Innocence, it actually morphs into something else altogether, something more unsettling and, well, ultimately unhinged. As is often the case with these threesomes, D casts aside the safe-option, and goes all in with the woman who is clearly going to be hard work. It was possible that one would lose sympathy for D at this stage, that one would see him as callous or selfish, but that is not the case. In fact, the process of D falling in love for the first time happens to be really quite moving. First love is, of course, invariably a bitch. I’m sure you can remember yours as well as I can remember mine. The confusion, the despair…feeling as though something has entered you, and not being sure whether it is wonderful or toxic. One minute you were absolutely carefree, and now suddenly you feel plagued, discomforted. Zamyatin describes this disturbance of one’s equilibrium as like having a fine eyelash in your eye. I was really very taken with that.

As a consequence of being in love, D starts to act rashly, to make poor decisions, to lie. He is, in fact, prepared to do whatever it takes to please I-300 and get close to her, even if it means participating in the destruction of the One State he admires so much. Sounds familiar, right? Oh, of course, our love-lives do not, as a rule, have serious socio-political consequences, but what Zamyatin seems to be suggesting is that love is a dangerous business, and I happen to agree with him on that point. Love is chaos, it is illogicality, it is, well, yeah, it is freedom. Great, isn’t it? When one considers all this one comes to realise that the title of the book has a significance beyond the political, that it refers to a couple, a relationship. We, us, me and my true love.

“Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.”

There is so much more that I want to say about D and I, about how one can interpret their relationship, about how even though I-300 just isn’t, y’know, as into it as he is, what matters is that he took a chance, that he opened himself up to the possibility of heartache, and how, for me, that is life at its best, that is what freedom truly is, but I am conscious of how long this review is already. I do, however, before I finish, want to briefly touch upon how intense a reading experience, and how unrelentingly psychological, We is, because I wasn’t prepared for that at all. One must remember that D is a man in crisis, a man who totally buys into the One State idea, and so as he follows I, as he rebels against it, one witnesses the entire fabric of his existence coming apart; this is a man, a mind, crumbling before your eyes. At times it is torturous to read in a way that only Dostoevsky’s work can match.

I haven’t yet said a great deal about the prose style, and I ought to to, because it is fantastic. I have never been accomplished at maths. My mind just isn’t wired that way. I knew enough to pass my GCSE, but I’ve always found numbers, equations, formulas, strangely alien and alienating, cold and restrictive. It is entirely apt then that We is strewn with mathematical references, language and symbols. Indeed, D-503 often uses mathematical imagery to describe people and things, which may sound gimmicky but is actually incredibly impressive. Less successful is the plot, which is episodic, repetitive, and never really goes anywhere, but I can forgive all that when the sentences are so beautiful, so idiosyncratic. More than anything, We reads like a delirious poem, a love poem for I-330, and for you too, you flawed but sometimes marvellous creatures.

THE SLYNX BY TATYANA TOLSTAYA

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!…”

WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS BY DAVID MARKSON

In the beginning, I worried about the style.

It looks like How It Is, is what I told myself upon opening the book.

Naturally I did not want to read something that appeared to be so much influenced by How It Is.

How It Is being the Samuel Beckett novel I least enjoyed.

Generally speaking, I like Samuel Beckett a lot, but How It Is did confuse and bore me a little.

Although, upon reflection, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is nothing like How It Is.

Markson’s novel is actually influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Being a philosophy graduate, I have rolled around on the floor, so to speak, with Wittgenstein’s book.

Yet I cannot speak about it with any authority. For it confused and bored me a little.

The most I can probably say about it is that it consists of short declarative statements.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress also consists of short declarative statements. Hence the title, I suppose.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is not, however, a philosophy text, like Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It is a novel by a now dead American.

The novel by the now deceased American includes plot and characters. As novels tend to do.

I ought to point out that Wittgenstein’s Mistress serves up less plot and fewer characters than most novels, which is not to say that this is a bad thing.

There is only one character, if I am being honest. Her name is Kate.

There is only one character if you choose to ignore the cat.

The cat, however, may not actually exist. So it may be wise to ignore it.

Kate believes herself to be the last person on earth, which probably explains why there are so few characters.

There is a very real sense of loneliness in the book, as one would expect of course.

This is emphasised by Kate’s search for a probably non-existent feline.

Kate’s desire to reach out and connect with another living creature moved me very much.

Which is to say that there was something in the idea of the last person on earth searching for a probably non-existent feline that had a strong emotional effect upon me.

If you consider that we live in a society where a good number of our species go to great lengths to avoid other people, Kate’s predicament seems all the more moving.

I should point out, however, that Kate’s predicament may not be all that it seems.

It is possible that Kate is not the last person on earth.

It is possible that she is suffering from some form of madness precipitated by a tragic or painful event.

As one progresses through the book there is a gradual revealing of, or hints at, some kind of personal crisis, which may account for her madness. If she is, indeed, mad. Which she may not be.

It is to Markson’s great credit that one comes away from the novel without a definite opinion.

Markson allows just enough of a peek into Kate’s personal life to create some doubt as to the veracity of her claim.

Her claim being that she is the last person on earth, of course.

Perversely, for a novel about the last person on earth, reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress made me feel less alone.