The Snail on the Slope is a neglected masterpiece by Russian science fiction greats Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who thought of it as ther "most complete and important work." now, in a stunning translation, this tour de force is ready to be introduced to a new generation of American readers. The novel takes place in two worlds. One is the Administration, an institution run by a surreal, Kafkaesque bureaucracy whose aim is to govern the forest below. The other is the Forest, a place of fear, weird creatures, primitive but garrulous people, and violence. Peretz, who works at the Administration, wants to visit the Forest. Candide crashed in the Forest years ago and wants to return to the Administration. Their journeys are surprising and bizarre, and readers are left to puzzle out the mysteries of these foreign environments. Brilliant, enigmatic, and revelatory, The Snail on the Slope is one of the greatest literary works to come out of Soviet Russia.
About the Author
Arkady (1925–1991) and Boris (1933–2012) Strugatsky were the most famous and popular Russian writers of science fiction, with over 25 novels and novellas to their names, including Roadside Picnic, The Doomed City, Hard to Be a God and The Inhabited Island. Their books have been widely translated and made into a number of films. Olena Bormashenko has been acclaimed for her translations of the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic and Hard to Be a God.
Read an Excerpt
From this height, the forest looked like dappled, fluffy foam; like a gigantic, world-encompassing porous sponge; like an animal that had once lain hidden in wait, then had dozed off, becoming overgrown with coarse moss. Like a shapeless mask, hiding a face no one had ever seen.
Peretz threw off his sandals and sat down, dangling his bare feet into the abyss. It seemed to him that his heels immediately became damp, as if he had actually dipped them into the warm lilac fog that accumulated in the shadow beneath the cliff. He took the stones that he'd gathered out of his pocket and carefully arranged them next to him, then chose the smallest one and gently tossed it down into that living silence, to be swallowed forever by its sleeping, indifferent maw. The white spark went out, but nothing happened — nobody blinked, no one's eyes opened to take a look. Then he threw another stone.
If you threw a stone every minute and a half; and if the one-legged cook nicknamed Cazalunya had been telling the truth; and if Madame Bardot, the head of the Assistance to the Locals Team, had guessed right; and if truck driver Randy and L'Estrange from the Penetration Through Engineering Team, whispering together in the cafeteria, had gotten it wrong; and if human intuition was worth a damn; and if, for once in your life, wishes were granted — then on the seventh stone, the bushes behind you would rustle and part, and the Director would emerge onto the clearing: shirtless, wearing gray gabardine pants with purple piping, breathing loudly, glistening with sweat, yellowish-pink and hairy. Then, paying no attention to anything, neither the forest beneath him nor the sky above him, he would begin to bend, sinking his broad palms into the grass, and unbend, creating a breeze with each swing of those broad palms, and every single time, the mighty crease in his stomach would roll over his pants, and a stream of air, saturated with nicotine and carbon dioxide, would shoot out his mouth, hissing and gurgling. Like a submarine flushing out its air tanks. Like a sulfur geyser on Paramushir Island ...
The bushes behind him rustled and parted. Peretz glanced cautiously over his shoulder, but it wasn't the Director, it was his acquaintance Claudius Octavian Bootlicherson from the Eradication Team. He approached slowly and stopped two paces away, staring down at Peretz with his dark eyes. He knew or suspected something, something very important, and this knowledge or suspicion immobilized his long face, the transfixed face of a man who had brought here, to this precipice, strange, disquieting news; no one had heard this news yet — but it was already clear that everything had changed, that the past had ceased to matter, and that everyone would finally be asked to contribute according to his or her abilities.
"Whose shoes are these?" he asked, and looked around.
"These are not shoes," Peretz said. "They are sandals."
"Oh yes?" Bootlicherson smiled sardonically and pulled a large notebook out of his pocket. "Sandals? Excellent. But whose sandals are they?" He approached the precipice, cautiously looked down, and immediately stepped back. "A man sits by a precipice," hesaid, "a pair of sandals by his side. The question inevitably arises: Whose sandals are they, and where is their owner?"
"These are my sandals," Peretz said.
"Yours?" Bootlicherson looked at his large notebook with uncertainty. "So you're sitting barefoot? Why?" He decisively put the large notebook away and extracted a small notebook from a back pocket.
"It's the only way," explained Peretz. "Yesterday, my right shoe fell in, and I decided that from now on I will always sit barefoot." He bent over and looked between his parted knees. "There it is. Let me just take aim ..."
"Wait a minute!" Bootlicherson nimbly caught his arm and took the stone away. "I concede, it's just a stone," he said. "But for now, that makes no difference. I don't understand why you'd lie to me, Peretz. After all, you can't see the shoe from here — that is, if it actually is down there, and we'll have to come back to that, that's a separate discussion — and since you can't see the shoe, you therefore can't expect to hit it with the stone, even if your aim were sufficiently good and your one and only goal were to hit it ... But we're about to sort this all out." He stuffed the small notebook into his breast pocket and took the large notebook out again. Then he hitched up his pants and crouched down. "So we conclude that you also came here yesterday," he said. "What for? Why have you repeatedly come to a precipice that the other employees of the Administration, not to mention the visiting experts, never come to except maybe to relieve themselves?"
Peretz shrank back. This is just ignorance, he thought. No, no, he isn't trying to provoke me, he isn't being malicious, and I shouldn't take it seriously. It's nothing but ignorance. There's no reason to take ignorance seriously; no one ever takes ignorance seriously. Ignorance defecates on the forest. Ignorance always defecates on something or another, and as a rule, it's not taken seriously. Ignorance never takes ignorance seriously ...
"You probably like to sit here," Bootlicherson continued silkily. "You probably really love the forest. Do you love it? Answer me!"
"What about you?" Peretz asked.
Bootlicherson sniffed. "That's not called for," he said huffily, and opened his notebook. "You know very well whom I work for. I work for the Eradication Team, and therefore your question, or rather your counterquestion, is absolutely meaningless. You are well aware that my attitude toward the forest is determined by my official duty, whereas I'm not at all sure what determines your attitude. This is not right, Peretz. Give it some serious thought — this advice is for your benefit, not my own. It's wrong to be so mysterious. Sitting by a precipice, barefoot, throwing stones ... Why, I ask? If I were you, I'd tell me everything. To set the record straight. You never know, there may be mitigating factors and you may ultimately have nothing to fear. Well, Peretz? After all, you're a grown man, and you must appreciate that ambiguity is unacceptable." He closed the notebook and thought for a bit. "For example, consider a stone. Lying still, it's simplicity itself; it inspires no doubts. But now a hand picks it up and throws it. You see?"
"No," Peretz replied. "I mean, yes, of course."
"There you go. It's no longer the least bit simple. 'Whose hand was it?' we ask. 'Where did it throw it? Did it throw it to someone? Did it throw it at someone? And why?' ... And how can you bear sitting so close to the edge? Did it come naturally, or did you have to practice? Personally, I can't bear sitting so close to the edge. And I shudder to think what could make me practice. I get dizzy. And that's as it should be. There's no reason for a man to sit close to the edge, anyway. Especially a man without a forest pass. Please show me your pass, Peretz."
"I don't have a pass."
"Ah. You don't have one. And why not?"
"I don't know ... They won't give me one."
"That's right, they won't give you one. We know this. But why won't they give you one? I got one, she got one, he and his grandmother got one, but for some reason, they won't give you one."
Peretz glanced at him cautiously. Bootlicherson's long, thin nose was twitching; his eyes were blinking rapidly. "It's probably because I'm an outsider," Peretz suggested. "That's probably why."
"And I'm not the only one taking an interest in you," Bootlicherson confided. "If only it were just me! Higher-ups are taking an interest, too ... Listen, Peretz, could you move farther away from the edge so we can continue? I get dizzy looking at you."
Peretz got up. "That's because you're neurotic," he said. "Let's not continue. We should get to the cafeteria or we'll be late."
Bootlicherson looked at his watch. "You're right, we should," he said. "I got carried away today. There's something about you, Peretz, that always makes me ... I don't even know how to put it."
Peretz began to hop on one foot, pulling on his sandal.
"Oh, do get away from the edge!" Bootlicherson shrieked in anguish, waving his notebook at Peretz. "One of these days, your shenanigans will give me a heart attack!"
"I'm all done," Peretz said, stamping his foot. "I won't do it again. Shall we?"
"Let's go," Bootlicherson said. "But I must observe that you haven't answered a single one of my questions. I'm very disappointed in you, Peretz. Is that any way to act?" He took a look at his large notebook and, shrugging, tucked it under his arm. "It's almost strange. Not a single impression, never mind any information. A complete lack of clarity."
"What's there to say?" said Peretz. "I just came here to talk to the Director."
Bootlicherson froze, as if he had gotten caught in the bushes. "Oh, so that's how you do it," he said in a new voice.
"Do what? I don't do anything."
"No, no," Bootlicherson whispered, glancing around. "Hold your tongue. No need for words. I understand. You were right."
"What do you mean, you understand? What am I right about?"
"No, no, I don't understand anything. I don't understand, and that's the end of it. You may rest assured. I don't understand, that's final. And anyway, I wasn't here and didn't see you. If you really want to know, I spent the whole morning sitting on this bench. Lots of people will confirm it. I'll talk to them, I'll ask them."
They passed the bench, climbed the weathered stairs, turned into a tree-lined walk strewn with fine red sand, and entered the gates leading to the territory of the Administration.
"Complete clarity can only exist on a certain level," Bootlicherson was saying. "And everyone should be aware of what they can pretend to. I pretended to clarity on my level — that was my right — and I have exhausted it. And where rights end, responsibilities begin, and let me assure you that I know my responsibilities just as well my rights."
They walked past the two-story villas with tulle curtains in the windows, each one subdivided into ten apartments, passed the garage with its corrugated iron roof, and crossed the athletic field, where a torn volleyball net hung abandoned between the poles. They continued past the warehouses, where the riggers were dragging a huge red container from a truck, and past the hotel, whose manager — pasty, with staring, bulging eyes — was standing in the doorway and holding a briefcase. Then they walked along a long fence, hearing the metallic grinding sounds of the machines on the other side; they walked faster and faster, because there wasn't much time left, and Bootlicherson wasn't talking anymore but only wheezing and gasping, and then they began to run. And despite all that, when they burst into the cafeteria, it was already late and all the seats were taken, and the only table that wasn't full was the attendant's table at the back, which had two empty seats. The third seat was occupied by truck driver Randy, and Randy, noticing them hovering indecisively by the door, waved them over with a fork.
Everyone was drinking buttermilk, and Peretz also got some, so there was now a row of six bottles on the worn-out tablecloth; and when Peretz wiggled his feet under the table, trying to get comfortable on his chair, which was missing its seat, there was a sound of clinking glass, and an empty brandy bottle rolled out into the space between the tables. Truck driver Randy promptly grabbed it and stuffed it back under the table, and there was again a sound of clinking glass.
"Watch your feet," he said.
"It was an accident," Peretz said. "I didn't know."
"Think I did?" Randy retorted. "There are four of 'em down there — good luck proving later they aren't yours. They can prove that two plus two makes five if they've got a mind to."
"Well, I, for one, don't drink," Bootlicherson said with dignity. "So this doesn't apply to me."
"Don't drink, huh?" said Randy. "Guess I don't drink myself, then."
"But I have liver disease!" Bootlicherson started to sound worried. "How could you? Here's a doctor's note, take a look ..."
He conjured up a wrinkled piece of paper with a triangular seal and waved it in Peretz's face. This really was an official note, written in a doctor's illegible handwriting. Peretz could only make out a single word, "Disulfiram," and when he became interested and tried to take the paper, Bootlicherson didn't let him have it and waved it in Randy's face.
"That's the most recent note," he said. "I also have notes for last year and the year before, except they are in my safe."
Truck driver Randy didn't look at the note. He said "Cheers," slowly drained a full glass of buttermilk, and belched. Then, tearing up, he said in a hoarser voice, "Say, know what else is in the forest? Trees." He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "But they don't stay put, they jump, OK?"
"Yeah?" Peretz said eagerly. "How do they jump?"
"Like this. It starts off standing still. Like a normal tree. Then it wriggles, it squirms, and BOOOOM! Crash, bang, everything's topsy-turvy. Jumps about thirty feet. Bangs up my cab. And it's standing still again."
"Why?" Peretz asked. He could imagine this very clearly. But of course, it didn't wriggle or squirm; it trembled when approached and tried to get away. Maybe it was squeamish. Maybe it was scared. "Why does it jump?" he asked.
"That's what it's called, a jumping tree," Randy explained, pouring himself some buttermilk.
"We got a new shipment of power saws yesterday," Bootlicherson informed them, licking his lips. "They are phenomenally effective. I would venture to say that these are not merely saws but sawing engines. Our sawing engines of eradication."
Meanwhile, everyone around them was drinking buttermilk — out of glasses, out of tin mugs, out of coffee cups, out of rolled-up paper bags, and straight from the bottle. Everyone had their feet tucked under their chairs. And everyone could probably show doctor's notes about diseases of the liver, stomach, or duodenum. Notes for this year, and for previous years, too.
"And then the garage foreman sends for me," Randy continued in a loud voice, "and asks why my cab is dented. 'You bastard, have you been smuggling things again?' he says. Now you, Signor Peretz, you play chess with him — put in a good word for me. He respects you, he talks about you all the time ... Peretz, he says, is a real man! 'I won't let Peretz use a car,' he says, 'don't even ask. Can't let a man like that go. You gotta understand, morons,' he says, 'we'll miss him.' So put in a good word for me, huh?"
"A-All right," Peretz said dejectedly. "I'll try. But what's this about a car?"
"I can talk to the garage foreman," said Bootlicherson. "We were in the military together: I was a captain, and he was my lieutenant. To this day, he greets me with a military salute."
"There are also mermaids," Randy said, his glass of buttermilk in midair. "In big clear lakes. They lie there, OK? Naked."
"That's all the buttermilk making you see things, Randall," said Bootlicherson.
"Never saw 'em myself," Randy objected, bringing the glass to his lips. "But water in these lakes isn't good to drink."
"You haven't seen them because they don't exist," Bootlicherson said. "Mermaids are a myth."
"Your mom's a myth," Randy said, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
"Wait," Peretz said. "Wait. Randy, you say they lie there ... What else do they do? They can't just lie there and that's all." Maybe they live underwater and swim to the surface, like we go out onto a balcony from smoke-filled rooms into the moonlit night, closing our eyes and letting the cool air wash over our faces — then maybe they just lie there. Just lie there, and that's all. Relaxing. And talking languidly and smiling at each other ...
"Don't argue with me," Randy said, staring at Bootlicherson. "Have you ever been in the forest? Never been in the forest, and you run your mouth."
"That's silly," Bootlicherson said. "What would I do in your forest? I have a pass for your forest. Whereas you, Randall, have no pass. Please show me your pass, Randall."
"I never saw these mermaids myself," Randy repeated, addressing Peretz. "But I do believe in them. Because the boys talk about them. Even Candide talked about them. And Candide, now, he knew everything about the forest. He walked through the forest like he was going on a date — he knew everything in there by feel. And he died in there, in his forest."
"If he did die," Bootlicherson said meaningfully.
"No ifs about it. A man takes off in a helicopter, and there's no word for three years. There was an obituary in the paper, there was a wake — what else do you want? Candide got smashed up, of course."
"We know too little," Bootlicherson said, "to assert anything with any degree of certainty."
Randy spat and went up to the counter to get another bottle of buttermilk. Bootlicherson bent down to Peretz's ear and, glancing around cautiously, whispered, "You should be aware that there were classified instructions regarding Candide. I consider it my prerogative to inform you, since you're an outsider ..."
Excerpted from "The Snail on the Slope"
Copyright © 1968 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Afterword - BY BORIS STRUGATSKY,