Saturday, January 14, 2012

The art of drystone walling and the Russian novel

We readers for whom books are almost everything think of books as one of the central foundations of our culture. Which culture? All cultures, as some books seem almost universal in their appeal and transcend time and place. They will always be relevant.

But what if civilisation has ended, and there is almost no connection between the world of the book and the world as we know it? What would we make of books then?

In Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx, civilisation ended 200 years before in an event known as The Blast, and Benedikt has a job transcribing old books so that they may be presented as the words of the new leader, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.

And Benedikt loves books; they are sacred, precious objects, even though he's puzzled about what some of the things in them may be.

...he knew that a book is a delicate friend, a white bird, an exquisite being, afraid of water.
Darling things! Afraid of water, of fire, they shiver in the wind. Clumsy, crude human fingers leave bruises on them that'll never fade! Never!
Some people touch books without washing their hands!
Some underline things in ink!
Some even tear pages out!

Books are only one aspect of this novel that is peppered with quotations from Russian writers, but they are a thread running all the way through. Words, and their staying power, their effect on people, are one of the few optimistic aspects of the dystopia Benedikt is living in, in a world that is pretty well bereft of beauty.

A rich man - that's who he was. Rich as rich could be! Benedikt thought about himself. I'm rich, he thought, and he laughed. He even yelped. I'm my own Murza! My own Sultan! Everyone's in the palm of my hand, in little letters: the bounty of boundless nature and the lives of countless people! Old-timers, youngsters, and indescribable beauties!

There was another good thing about books, he thought. The beauties rustling their dresses between the pages, peering from behind shutters and from under lace curtains, the beauties wringing their white hands and throwing themselves with loosened hair under the hooves of steeds, their eyes sparking fiercely - she's crying and her waist is the size of an hourglass - beauties who lounge on divans with pounding hearts, and leap up to cast a wild gaze around the room; who step fearfully, lowering their dark blue eyes; who dance fiery dances with roses in their hair - these beauties never have to answer nature's call, they never have to bend over to pick things up, they never get gas, no pimples pop up on their faces, and their backs never hurt. Their golden hair never has any dandruff and lice never nest or lay eggs in it, they leave them alone. And those golden curls - they curl for days on end, and no one ever says anything about these beauties spending half the day with bobbins in their hair. They don't chomp, sneeze or snore. Their cheeks don't squelch; no Isabelle or Caroline ever wakes up puffy with sleep; their jaws don't clack when they yawn, they wake refreshed and toss back the curtains.

What I love most about Tolstaya are her words. They remind me of bricks, each one set firmly and surely in its place. Some writers strew words like confetti; they land anywhere. Each one is nebulous - you feel they might easily have chosen another word. There's a sense of inexactitude.

No, Tolstaya's words are not like bricks, they're more like rocks in a drystone wall; each one different from the others, but selected with a sure hand that knows exactly where it will fit.

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