The Snail on the Slope: “Entirely inaccessible to the general reader”

The Snail on the Slope by Arkady & Boris StrugatskyThe Snail on the Slope by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

The Snail on the Slope by Arkady & Boris StrugatskyChicago 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.

The Snail on the Slope by Arkady & Boris StrugatskyThis 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.

Published in 1968. Reprinted and produced in audio format in 2018. The Snail on the Slope 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 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 strange, and readers are left to puzzle out the mysteries of these foreign environments. The Strugatskys themselves called The Snail on the Slope “the most complete and important” of their works.

SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

View all posts by

4 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    More incomprehensible than “Lies, Inc.”?!?! That’s hard to imagine….

  2. It does sound like a lot of it is intended as specific political satire (and maybe even some coding to get it past government scrutiny); it sounds like a book you’d study in a PolySci class rather than read for pleasure.

    I have liked other work of theirs, same as you.

    And a great review! Thanks, Kat.

    • According to the afterword, that isn’t what they were going for. Instead, it has to do with “future.” The forest is the unknowable future and the administration is the chaotic present that is trying to control, but instead mucks up, the future. It seems like it took them a while to figure this out (they wrote a lot of it before coming to this conclusion). But a lot of critics have suggested (incorrectly according to Boris) that the allegory was political.

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *