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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Snail on the Slope

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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To purchase The Snail on the Slope

Title: The Snail on the Slope
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Genre: Novel
Written: (1968) (Eng. 2018)
Length: 248 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Snail on the Slope - US
The Snail on the Slope - UK
The Snail on the Slope - Canada
The Snail on the Slope - India
L'Escargot sur la pente - France
in Gesammelte Werke 3 - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Улитка на склоне
  • Translated by Olena Bormashenko
  • Previously translated by Alan Meyers (1980)
  • With an Afterword by Boris Strugatsky

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creatively opaque

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times* . 16/11/1980 Eric Korn
The Times* . 25/9/1980 Tom Hutchinson
TLS* . 7/11/1980 C.R.Pike
TLS . 25/1/2019 Muireann Maguire

[*: review of an earlier translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's a marvellous subtle, funny book, with a translation that mostly copes admirably with what must have been a hideously complex text. Some passages remain, deliberately or not, obscure" - Eric Korn, Sunday Times

  • "Repays whatever effort you feel it needs." - Tom Hutchinson, The Times

  • "(A) fantastic vision of extraordinary power, a difficult, demanding but rewarding work. (...) The Strugatskys are not afraid to leave many questions unanswered. (...) The Strugatskys warn of the dangerous complacency of ur deficient understandings of the Other, as phenomena, people or societies." - C.R.Pike, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Bormashenko’s translation lacks the lyrical panache of Myers’s, but it is lexically much more accurate (and not only because, unlike her predecessor, she could access the novel’s complete text). (...) Many passages evoke Kafka or Ionescu." - Muireann Maguire, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Snail on the Slope features two protagonists, Peretz and Candide, their stories presented in not quite alternating chapters. Their worlds are side by side, and yet worlds apart; each is an outsider coming to grips (or not) with their surroundings. One locale is dominated by the Administration, an über-bureaucracy and scientific agency -- "the surreal parody of every government agency in existence", as co-author Boris Strugatsky explains in his Afterword -- which is engaged in the study of the other locale, a mysterious forest.
       Candide was one of those researching the forest, attached to the Administration, but three years earlier he had vanished and is presumed dead -- though in fact he has survived in the forest all this time. Peretz is a visiting employee, attached to the Administration but apart from it, longing to enter the forest but unable to get a pass to do so: "It's probably because I am an outsider", he reasons. Some think that is for the best:

     "You shouldn't be allowed in there, Perry," Kim said. "Only people who've never thought about the forest should be allowed in there. People who never gave a damn about it. Whereas you care about it too much. The forest is dangerous for you, because it will fool you."
       Frustrated by his inability to enter the forest, but also understanding that there's no place for someone like him (a philologist) in either the scientific research into the forest or the Administration-complex itself -- "There's nothing for philologists, writers, philosophers to do in the Administration"-- he decides to, and tries to, leave. This too turns out to be an exercise largely in futility, his plans repeatedly dashed, his apparent path out repeatedly turning simply into another detour.
       Meanwhile, in the forest itself, Candide still struggles to figure out his situation: nicknamed 'Silent Man', he has found himself part of a community deep within the forest, but obviously doesn't feel like he belongs. His memory remains hazy, his past -- and how he wound up here -- unclear. He finds, frustratingly:
I've completely forgotten how to think in this place. If any thoughts do occur to me, then it immediately turns out that I'm incapable of connecting them ...
       He is obviously different from everything native to the forest. As someone recounts to him, about when he first appeared:
The Tortured Questioner took your clothes off, very strange clothes they were, no one could figure out where and how that kind of thing might grow ... So he cut these clothes up and planted them, thought they might grow if you cut them up and plant them, thought they might grow, he did. But nothing he planted grew, it didn't even sprout, so he again started asking, why do all other clothes grow if you cut them up and plant them, whereas your clothes, Silent Man, didn't even sprout ? He even tried pestering you lots of times, wouldn't leave you alone, but you weren't thinking straight at the time, you'd just mumble things, like that man without a face, and hide behind your hand.
       Candide has made up his mind to leave -- though not for the first time, he recalls. But, as for Peretz, departure is not simple. There's no easy way out of their situations.
       The bizarre natures of both the Administration and the forest flummox Peretz and Candide at every turn (and there are quite a few turns). The Administration and the forest operate under logics that defy their understanding -- to comic (in the case of the Administration) and creepy-sinister (in the case of the forest) effect. So, for example:
When it comes to the forest, one day something's a road, the next it's a river; one day something's a swamp, the next it's surrounded by barbed wire and has a watchtower in the middle. Or you suddenly find a brand-new repository.
       And then there are all the creatures -- animal and plant life, 'deadlings' -- and the fact that 'death' is a much more complicated (and less final) concept than one usually thinks of it.
       Understanding remains elusive: when Peretz does manage to enter the forest, a bit, he nevertheless finds:
     I was dying to get here, and now I'm here, and I'm finally seeing the forest from within, and I don't see a thing. I could have thought all this up without leaving the hotel
       The Strugatskys' richly imagined world is meant to be one beyond our ken; the contrast to the similarly (if in different ways) absurdist Administration -- a (presumably) entirely man-made creation -- is particularly enjoyable.
       With its mysterious hard-to-meet Director -- spreading his word via the telephone, where he is: "addressing everyone at once, but at the same time he's speaking to each person individually" -- the Administration remains baffling to Peretz:
I didn't understand a thing, I didn't find any of the things I wanted to find, but now I know for sure that I will never understand anything, that things have to happen in their own time. I have nothing in common with the forest; I'm no closer to the forest than I am to the Administration.
       All the while, departure -- escape -- continues to prove elusive, and instead Peretz eventually finds himself sucked into the Administration in yet another way, in the nicely twisted resolution of his story.
       The state of these unusual worlds also reflects our own (and, even more obviously, the Strugatskys' Soviet one), as in:
We only build monuments, bigger taller, cheaper monuments, but memories -- we no longer have any memories.
       (This comes in a Peretz-section -- but of course also manifests itself with Candide, who literally can not remember his past.)
       There's both the visceral and haunting, especially in the forest-scenes, but also the more theoretical; a nice aside is a short discussion of art, and a picture in the offices of the Director (who is not the Director ...) -- a reproduction, as the (not-the-)Director explains:
The original was destroyed, of course, as befits a work of art that cannot be allowed to have ambiguous interpretations. The first and second copies were also destroyed, as a precautionary measure.
       The Snail on the Slope beautifully captures the fog of trying to comprehend and apprehend the world -- and, especially an other world --, the forest and the Administration both in their different ways entities that have taken on a life very much of their own, and whose workings and parts remain baffling. The Strugatsky's refuse to offer a clear picture; that's one of their points: there are no clear pictures.
       Both comical and vividly imagined, The Snail on the Slope is a nicely disturbing piece of science fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 September 2018

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The Snail on the Slope: Reviews (* review of an earlier translation): Other books by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Arkady Strugatsky (Аркадий Натанович Стругацкий, 1925-1991) and Boris Strugatsky (Борис Натанович Стругацкий, 1931-2012) were leading Soviet science fiction authors.

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© 2018 the complete review

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