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New York Times
January 26, 2003
book review
January 26, 2003
Tatyana Tolstaya on Russia Past and Present

Writings on Russia and Russians.
By Tatyana Tolstaya.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell.
242 pp. Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company. Paper, $15.

By Tatyana Tolstaya.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell.
278 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $24.

"She writes as a participant in her country's lamentable history, and she is a spinning fury, emitting words like sparks, enraged, saved from choking on the absurdities she has been called to witness only by the irresistible need to laugh at them.''

Thus Alma Guillermoprieto's introduction to ''Pushkin's Children,'' a collection of pieces written by Tatyana Tolstaya over 10 years of jousting witness to the radical transformation of her native Russia. It is a tribute to Guillermoprieto, a distinguished journalist, that her words catch the contagion of Tolstaya's annealing vehemence. They also provide a clue, certainly unintended, to the weaknesses of Tolstaya's first novel, ''The Slynx.'' (The two books have just been published in attentive translations by Jamey Gambrell.)

When she deals with the roiling life of Russia -- its politics, history, culture, obsessions and its human defaults and human superabundance -- Tolstaya flares and circumscribes her subject like a back-burn set to contain a blaze. She fixes reality by using extremities of feeling and a poetic exactness of image. In ''The Slynx,'' a quasi-dystopian novel, the wildness has nothing to contain; it feeds off itself. There are no real protagonists to whom tenderness can attach; only a series of grotesque masks performing a loosely assembled allegory.

''The Slynx'' takes place in a post-holocaust Russia, where people have advanced into the neolithic and the wheel is just being invented. Most of them, the Golubchiks, are crude and peasant-like, grotesquely deformed by the genetic effects of radiation. They eat mice as a treat, and are abused by a predatory Party-like class under the rule of Fyodor Kuzmich Kablukov, part Stalin and part Wizard of Oz. The Saniturions, a kind of K.G.B., enforce the system, rooting out people possessing books (forbidden) and ''treating'' them. A remnant of Oldeners, who are the equivalent of Soviet-era dissidents, are tolerated thanks to their leader, Nikita. His genetic deformity consists of the unique power to breathe fire. (A parallel to Soviet intellectuals' feared insistence on wielding inflammatory words, which led to their sometimes gingerly handling.)

Tolstaya seems to have ''Animal Farm'' and ''Brave New World'' partly in mind, but ''Slynx'' (the name refers to an evil monster) is a retrospective dystopia and lacks the shiver of prophecy. Despite ingenious touches it is largely a series of coarse tableaus. The author packs her caricatures into a story that comes to resemble a car wreck -- one from which she seems to make an emergency exit somewhere before its fragmenting destination.

Tolstaya's spirit and art are far better suited to accosting real people. ''Pushkin's Children'' amounts to much more than the sum of its parts, which were published between 1990 and 2000 in various journals, chiefly The New York Review of Books. Collectively, they become one of the great political and cultural documents of our time, its continuity supplied by the wit and ardor of the writer, its freshness by the many disjunctions. Each piece is an entry from the perspective of the day, and that perspective keeps shifting.

In 1991 Tolstaya's Gorbachev comes across as a slick fraud whose reforms are aimed essentially at making things better for the Party, not the people. Her Yeltsin, despite his personal failings -- because of them, even
-- represents the people bravely if clumsily. By 1996 the economy is in chaos, klepto-capitalism reigns, hopes have soured and so has Tolstaya. She blames Yeltsin for self-centered fecklessness. ''He used to think that power was simply pleasurable,'' she writes. ''He himself didn't know what he wanted (other than peace, respect, volleyball, tennis, comfortable offices, the bathhouse and that 'everything be all right').''

Gorbachev has become ''a man whose achievements, in my view, are enormous, and whose potential as a politician has not been exhausted.'' Then, not quite trusting her own rhetorical flight, and suiting her Russian weakness for losers (once a little time has passed), she turns him into ''the hero of jokes, almost a holy fool, a ridiculous clown who, despite everything, mumbles on about his own ideas. . . . You listen closely -- maybe he's speaking the truth.''

She supplies a wonderful list of qualities to show that the Russian character is essentially feminine, while belittling foreign feminist complaints that the Russian woman is discouraged from pursuing a public career. Why would we want her to do the work of two people? she sardonically demands. ''For as soon as a Soviet man sees that someone is doing his work for him, he quickly lies down on the sofa and falls into a reverie with a feeling of relief.''

The ruble collapses, and shoppers scuttle about in hopeless pursuit of foreign goods that were abundant though expensive a day or two before. Tolstaya finds a friend feasting with her children on bowls of caviar, produced domestically and still available. They wear tutus, though: no detergent (imported), so no clean clothes.

She ponders Putin, newly come to power. Some liberals write him off as a former K.G.B. apparatchik. She agrees tentatively with others who believe their support can bend him their way. For a moment she is Pinocchio's fairy godmother, encouraging the wooden puppet to become human.

She portrays Solzhenitsyn, the prophet back from exile and beached, whale-like, in a would-be consumer society indifferent to moral issues. His celebrity dwindles to two 15-minute TV appearances monthly. In between, he ''flies like an incorporeal spirit in a swirl of electrons through the indifferent ether, to beat against my television screen, begging to be let out with his moldy prophecies.''

Tolstaya has a cold eye, an ardent heart and an airy wit. In a tiny evocation she celebrates St. Petersburg under the snow. Winter to Russian writers is what spring is to most others: a brilliant blue resurrection. ''The grimy cornices, roofs and windowsills are covered instantly: everything vertical is black, everything horizontal white,'' she writes. Children come out; their footprints ''arrange themselves into a text.'' The censoring snowplow follows, ''baring the asphalt -- taking away our gift and leaving only blackness behind.''

Richard Eder writes book reviews and articles for The Times.

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