The Snail on the Slope by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Chicago Review Press and Blackstone Audio have been translating and reprinting some of the Strugatsky brothers’ works and they’ve sent me review copies. I read Monday Starts on Saturday several months ago but never managed to write a review, which I feel terrible about because I really liked that book. I will try to review it soon.
Being familiar with their style — which is bizarre, ironic, visually arresting, and funny — I figured I’d like The Snail on the Slope (1968), too. Not so, but it was a close thing. I loved each individual sentence that the Strugatskys composed, and even some complete scenes, but when everything was put together, I could make no sense of it. The Snail on the Slope is the most incomprehensible SFF book I’ve ever read. Even more so than Lies, Inc by Philip K. Dick.
The “story” has two “plots.” (I feel like it is very generous of me to use the words “story” and “plots.”) One follows a man named Peretz who is a visiting linguist at the Forest Administration building. He wants to study the strange forest that the Administration is supposed to be in charge of, but he can’t manage to get there. He doesn’t have a Forest Pass and nobody will give him one, though he doesn’t understand why. Realizing that everyone around him talks like a bumbling idiot (while drinking buttermilk) and his job is totally meaningless, he attempts to escape the Administration but finds this to be a nearly impossible undertaking, too. The other plot follows a man named Candide whose helicopter crashed in the forest years ago and he’s been trying to get out of the forest ever since. On his journey, he meets some of the forest’s denizens.
This sounds like a cool premise, like Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, so, I thought I’d love The Snail on the Slope. I think I could have, too, but the Strugatskys went so far out in left field on this one that it just became frustrating. The things that happen to Peretz and Candide, and almost all of the dialogue, is like an LSD trip — everything seems random and meaningless. The publisher’s book description uses the words “surreal,” “strange,” “surprising,” and “Kafkaesque.” That’s a nice way to put it. I think better words would be “obscure,” “confusing,” and “incomprehensible.” I think Peretz describes the experience of reading The Snail on the Slope best with his words: “What is he talking about? I don’t understand a thing.”
I figured out that the authors were making a point about meaningless work and the ridiculousness of overblown bureaucracies, and I thought that was probably commentary on the Soviet system they lived in. I thought maybe the whole thing was a metaphor that I just wasn’t quite grasping because of my Western heritage.
But then, at the end of the novel, there is an afterword by Boris Strugatsky. I was right, The Snail on the Slope is a metaphor that, according to Strugatsy, has “remained entirely inaccessible to the general reader.” Strugatsky says he “can count on one hand the number of people who fully grasped the entirety of the authorial intent.” So, I guess I don’t feel so obtuse now. I wish I had read the afterword before reading the novel. I would have enjoyed it more. The Snail on the Slope will have limited appeal, but if you decide to try it, please read the afterword first!
Chicago Press’s hardback edition of The Snail on the Slope is beautiful. The audiobook, narrated by Chris Andrew Ciulla is a wonderful production. I thought Ciulla was cast perfectly and his performance was enjoyable even when the “story” wasn’t. I should also note that the translation from Russian by Olena Bormashenko was excellent. (The sentences were lovely and it’s not her fault that I didn’t understand the book.)
One last thing: This experience has not at all put me off on the Strugatskys. I love their desire to experiment and love what they do with language. They are smart and funny and observant. I look forward to reading more of their work.