- Male and Female in The Snail on the Slope by the Strugatsky Brothers
Many of the best works of Russian literature defy classification by genre. It may be that the broad Russian imagination cannot be contained in narrow Western aesthetic categories. On the other hand, Russian writers may simply have emulated the formal originality of Pushkin's "novel in verse" Evgeny Onegin (1823-31), thus establishing a tradition of untraditional forms. In any case, following Onegin came nineteenth-century mixed-genre masterpieces such as Dead Souls, Gogol's "long poem in prose"; A Double Life, Karolina Pavlova's "sketch" (ocherk) in poetry and prose; and War and Peace, a philosophical-historical epic that Tolstoy himself refused to call a novel.1 And in the twentieth century such literary experiments continued unabated among Russian symbolists, futurists, and NEP writers.2 In this context we can more easily understand the unconventional form of The Snail on the Slope (Ulitka na sklone). This contemporary [End Page 97] work by the well-known Soviet science fiction writers and social critics Arkady and Boris Strugatsky consists of two complementary novellas (povesti) united by parallel plots and a common setting.3
The work as a whole depicts a struggle between two imaginary realms: one, a fecund but deadly forest ruled by pre-Christian goddesses of life and death, and the other a sterile, male-dominated bureaucracy called the Forest Authority that ineffectually tries to administrate the forest from an overhanging cliff. The Strugatskys treat one sphere in each povest' but tie the two together with structural parallels and contrasts. For example, each povest' opens with an outsider impatiently languishing in his respective sphere. Kandid, a biologist from the Forest Authority, has been trying to find his way out of the forest for two years, since his helicopter crashed there. At the same time, Perets, a literary scholar who first came to the Forest Authority voluntarily, also finds himself trapped—but by red tape. He feels useless and out of place at the Authority yet cannot obtain permission either to visit the forest, his obsession, or to return home. Although Kandid and Perets share a common dilemma as captives, they illustrate contrasting attitudes toward life. Kandid, as his name suggests, is innocent, willing to learn from his terrible adventures in the forest. Although in the course of the work he fails to find his way back to the Forest Authority, nonetheless he manages to discover the forest's secrets and to find a way of life that preserves both his dignity and his humanity. In contrast, Perets (the Russian word for "pepper," suggesting bitterness and sardonic wit) experiences only revulsion on his brief, accidental trip to the forest and soon after succumbs to the temptations of power. In fact, his promotion to director of the Forest Authority signifies his spiritual death. Except for a conversation about Kandid that Perets overhears, the two characters never encounter each other. Nonetheless, the two povesti taken together give a clear picture of the forest-Forest Authority struggle, something neither does taken separately.
Unfortunately, no authoritative text for the work as a whole exists. The "Kandid half" appeared by itself in the 1966 science fiction anthology Ellinskii sekret (The Hellenic Secret). At that time the Strugatskys described this part as "fragments" of "the novella [provest"] on which we are presently working" and explained that the completed work might "seem a bit unusual because essentially it constitutes, as it were, two novellas in one, with two totally independent plots" (384-385). Although the "Perets half appeared two years later in the Siberian magazine Baikal (1968, nos. 1 and 2), The Snail on the Slope has never appeared in its entirety in the USSR. Thus we cannot know how the Strugatskys intended to join the work's separate but interrelated parts. Did they plan to interdigitate them [End Page 98] by alternating groups of characters from each part (as did the 1980 Bantam Books English translation by Alan Meyers) or simply to reprint them as they originally appeared? Perhaps one day we will find out.4
No doubt political considerations have prevented the reprinting of The Snail on the Slope in...