Jamey Gambrell, Translator, Tat'iana Tolstaia, Author , trans. from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. Houghton Mifflin $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-618-12497-8

Though some may already consider contemporary Russia a kind of dystopia, things could yet be worse, as posited in Tolstaya's intelligent debut novel (after two acclaimed story collections, Sleepwalker in a Fog and On the Golden Porch). Some kind of nuclear accident has turned all of Russia into a postapocalyptic wasteland, where snow falls constantly and mice are the staple of people's diets. Moscow has been ruled by a series of petty despots, each of whom renames the great city after himself. The latest ruler is Fyodor Kuzmich, who employs vast numbers of scribes to copy his writings (actually plagiarized versions of great literary works). One of these scribes is Benedikt, a simple man who has never actually read a book. But Oldeners—people who survived the blast—keep secret libraries, and when one of them introduces Benedikt to his collection, it begins a cycle of learning that gives Benedikt serious political ambitions, enough to start yet another Russian revolution. It takes some time for a plot to develop, but Tolstaya sketches a vivid picture of life in this permanent winter ("Give black rabbit meat a good soaking, bring it to boil seven times, set it in the sun for a week or two, then steam it in the oven—and it won't kill you"). If the author's name looks familiar, it's because it is: Tolstaya is Leo Tolstoy's great-grandniece, so writing about Russian tyranny is something of a family tradition. In this extended fable, she captures the Russian yearning for culture, even in desperate circumstances. Gambrell ably translates the mix of neologisms and plain speech with which Tolstaya describes this devastated world. (Jan. 15)

Forecast:Tolstaya is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and other journals, and this novel will likely benefit from its simultaneous publication with a collection of her essays ( Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians; Mariner).

Reviewed on: 11/25/2002
Release date: 01/01/2003
Genre: Fiction
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