The Burn tells the story of the Soviet generation that came of age in the years just after the death of Joseph Stalin. There are five more or less interchangeable heroes—or rather antiheroes—all members of Vassily Aksyonov’s generation, all liberals, all superstars in their professions: Kunitser the physicist, Sabler the musician, Malkolmov the physician, Khvastishchev the sculptor, and Pantalei the writer. The disillusioned heroes have retreated from the successes of the socially concerned, optimistic 1960’s into alcohol, sex, and work. Although the men do not know one another and lead independent lives, they have certain virtually identical and seemingly concurrent parallel experiences. Among them are encounters with an almost-recognized figure from the past who triggers flashbacks to a time when the five protagonists were one person, the teenage Tolya von Steinbock. Moreover, the identity of each of the heroes continuously revolves into that of another at the end of each episode.
On the evening of the novel’s first day, the collective protagonist encounters his old friend Patrick Thunderjet. Their drinking expands into a binge that takes the hero and Thunderjet through a set of riotous experiences ending in a police drunk tank in the Crimea. Too valuable to Soviet society to be written off, the collective hero is sent to a detox hospital, cured, and discharged.
Three years pass. The sobered heroes continue their lives engaged in major creative projects, including a secret satellite project; a miraculous serum, Lymph D; a gigantic marble sculpture of a dinosaur “Humility”; a jazz-rock fusion breakthrough; and the writing of a play, or perhaps The Burnitself. Each of these men has a professional colleague, a close friend from the early 1960’s, when a radiant new future seemed imminent. The old friends have compromised with the renewed conservative government and risen to positions of power and influence. Judas-like, these former friends betray the heroes, who, at the moment of crisis, return to alcohol.
In the shattering finale the collective protagonist, now merged into a single nameless “I” (apparently the adult Tolya von Steinbock), descends into alcoholic madness. Attempts to save him fail because the hero can trust no one. In the last of a series of drunken hallucinations he leaps to his death, believing that he is an astronaut flying to the moon.
There is also a story-behind-the-story told in a series of flashbacks to events twenty years before. Tolya von Steinbock joins his mother in Siberia when she is released from a ten-year sentence toward the end of Stalin’s government. He wants nothing more than to be a model Soviet youth and is vaguely ashamed of his ex-prisoner mother and stepfather, a doctor and Catholic lay priest of German origin. Among a group of new women prisoners being marched through the streets he sees a young Polish-English girl, Alisa, whom he dreams of rescuing. As he daydreams, an ex-prisoner named Sanya Gurchenko offers modest aid to the girl. Tolya becomes friends with Gurchenko, who knows his stepfather. The courage and idealism of the two older men greatly impress him. Tolya’s mother is soon rearrested, as is Sanya. They are interrogated, Sanya brutally, by two political police agents, Cheptsov, and his superior. Sanya later escapes to the West, where he becomes a Catholic theologian.
These events lie deeply buried in the minds of the successful heroes. They do not wish to remember the past with its implications for the future, but it is very much with them. Wherever they go they encounter two old men, cloakroom attendants, drunk-tank aides, and so on, who are faintly familiar. They also yearn for a promiscuous beauty, who...
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moves in Moscow intellectual circles and seems to be the Polish-English Alisa. The heroes are forced to confront both their impotent past and compromised present: a confrontation they cannot face. Unlike Sanya Gurchenko, who actively resisted, they compromised with the system. They fail to rescue Alisa, who has also been corrupted and who, like their friends, betrays them.
It is Gurchenko who offers the solution. On a trip to Rome the collective hero has an encounter with Gurchenko, now a Jesuit priest, who articulates his philosophy of “the third model.” The basic postulate is that all men, atheist and believer alike, seek God. There are always two models before man: an idea and its comparison. What one must seek is a third model—one which is qualitatively different—through which one may strive to see the face of God. Man approaches it only in moments of intuitive, suprarational creative inspiration. Although many human emotions, such as fear, anger, courage, can be rationally understood, others, the higher emotions such as compassion for one’s neighbor, charity, the urge for justice, are rationally inexplicable. Creativity is similarly transrational. Christianity, precisely because it is concerned with unaccountable human phenomena, offers a basis for moral action. The hero’s final leap is, however, not an act of revelation, but one of despair. The weight of the past is too heavy and his moral complicity too great.