The Burn

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2235

Vassily Aksyonov’s newly translated novel The Burn marks a significant stage in the artistic evolution of an author who is among the best known of the writers who have emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Written between 1969 and 1975, and published in Russian under the title Ozhog in 1980, the novel combines Aksyonov’s characteristically innovative approach to verbal narrative with a serious exploration of the problems facing sensitive intellectuals in contemporary Soviet society. Fusing objective narrative with dream segments, stream of consciousness, hallucinatory visions, and memories, the novel challenges the reader to enter into the psychology of the modern Soviet intellectual struggling to attain a sense of purpose in an unreceptive society.

To illustrate this struggle, Aksyonov focuses on five male protagonists: Aristarkh Kunitser, a scientist; Samson Sabler, a jazz musician; Radius Khvastishchev, a sculptor; Gennady Malkolmov, a physician; and Pantelei Pantelei, a writer. Although these men are superficially distinct, Aksyonov indicates that they are fundamentally linked with one another and perhaps should be viewed as five possible incarnations of a single central consciousness, like five allophones of a single phoneme. They all have the same unusual patronymic—Appolinarievich (son of Apollinary), and they apparently share a common set of childhood memories and experiences. Moreover, these five also seem to merge with a higher narrative consciousness as Aksyonov alternates freely between the third person and the first person in his narration, particularly in the first book of the novel, a phantasmagoric account of the heroes’ attempt to transcend the pressures of everyday reality through a carnivalistic immersion in drunkenness and sexual activity. Through the device of creating five separate characters out of one basic consciousness, Aksyonov is able both to portray a wide variety of intellectual and cultural experiences and to suggest a nagging lack of psychological integration which afflicts those who have not been able to resolve essential questions about personal identity and their responsibilities in society.

The underlying source for this sense of dissociation must be traced back to the adolescence of Anatoly Appolinarievich von Steinbock, the youth whose life in a prison town in Siberia continues to influence the five adult protagonists’ perception of existence in contemporary Moscow. Just as the inserted narrative about the interaction between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate forms the ideological core of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita (1966-1967), so too does the embedded narrative about Tolya’s youth form the ideological core of The Burn. Significantly, Aksyonov does not reveal Tolya’s experiences directly to the reader at the outset of the novel but rather alludes to them in a series of enigmatic references in the first part of the novel. This oblique method of exposition suggests the immense psychological power contained in the experiences themselves. Like an undetonated mine, the memories of Tolya’s discoveries about life lie buried deep within the minds of Aksyonov’s adult protagonists, and because of their raw emotional content, these formative experiences cannot be approached directly but rather must be uncovered with caution and sensitivity.

The pivotal occurrence in Tolya’s life was the clash between his naïve ideals about society and the harsh realities of his world. Reared by his mother in Magadan after she had served a ten-year sentence for alleged political crimes, Tolya longed to be an ordinary member of his society, and he was filled with enthusiasm for the egalitarian doctrines of the Communist youth organization. This innocent faith in the Party’s program, however, was shattered by a series of unfathomable and unforgivable events: his mother’s rearrest, the ostracism he suffered for being of...

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Jewish ancestry, and his observation of unprovoked physical cruelty toward a prisoner whom he idolized. Aksyonov based his descriptions of these events on his own youth in Magadan, where his mother, Eugenia Ginzburg, had lived after being imprisoned on a spurious political charge. She went on to chronicle her ordeal in her noteworthy memoirs,Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Within the Whirlwind (1981).

Tolya’s encounters left an indelible impression on his soul and created the framework for his five adult personae’s perceptions of society. Two discoveries in particular seem to haunt the protagonists. Tolya’s realization that the system itself spawns individuals capable of gratuitous oppression resurfaces as a fundamental distrust of the system in later years. Cheptsov, Tolya’s childhood tormentor, seems omnipresent in modern-day Moscow. His burning little eyes appear not only in the figure of Cheptsov himself, now working as a cloakroom guard, but also in such other figures as a political boss (called Nikita Kornponevich), a secretary of a literary organization, and a young official of the secret police whose activities suggest that the era of Cheptsov’s repressive mentality is returning. Aksyonov evokes the rising tide of repression through a series of flashbacks that depict how the euphoria over the relative liberalization occurring during the thaw after Joseph Stalin’s death gradually began to wane with the arrest of two liberals in 1966 (a reference to Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel) and was finally extinguished with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Stung by the perception of betrayed ideals and growing constraints in society, the adult protagonists question the culpability of the intelligentsia for this development and their proper response to it.

Compounding this distress is Tolya’s second discovery, that he is contemptuously treated as un-Russian because of his Jewish ancestry. A corresponding dichotomy emerges in the adult characters who are torn between an instinctive love for Russia and an anguished awareness of Russia’s separation from Europe, its lack of culture and its boorish xenophobia. Aksyonov’s treatment of this theme anticipates his novel Ostrov Krym (1981; The Island of Crimea, 1983), which was written from 1977 to 1979, in which a utopian dream of bringing the Soviet Union into the European community is destroyed by the aggressiveness of the Soviet state.

The pattern of Tolya’s emotional enlightenment, in which idealistic enthusiasm over his potential contribution to society degenerates into disillusionment and despair, becomes the pattern for the mature protagonists’ interactions too, particularly in the second book of the novel. This pattern also stands out in the way the protagonists view the female characters in the novel. With the exception of Tolya’s mother, all the major female characters seem to be valued not so much for their own intrinsic merit as for their perceived worth to the male heroes. This is especially true in the case of a married woman named Alisa Fokusova, who is pursued by several characters in the book and becomes the object of deep romantic idealization by Pantelei. Young Tolya had been smitten with a female prisoner whom he called Alisa, and Pantelei seems to be seeking in the adult Alisa a perfect, transcendental lover. Her surname, however, suggests that he is pursuing a chimera: Fokus in Russian means a conjuring trick. Indeed, Alisa dispenses her sexual favors freely and disappoints Pantelei by deciding to return to her husband after leaving him for Pantelei. Pantelei concludes that this denouement was inevitable because “we are in the land of socialist realism.”

This cycle of hope and disillusionment ultimately corrodes the soul of the composite central character, and in the third book of the novel, Aksyonov depicts this character’s desperate attempt to flee the contradictions of his society and seek a conclusive solution to his quest for understanding and peace. In this section, Aksyonov dispenses with the device of five separate protagonists; alternating between a third-person and a first-person narrative mode, he focuses on a single character, now called simply “the Victim.” This Victim’s search for meaning has as much the appearance of a paranoid flight from nonspecific persecution as it does a quest for positive ideals. Haunted by a vision of a dinosaur growing steadily in the Moscow streets and threatening the city with its insensate bulk, the Victim-narrator flees deep into the Russian countryside, which he believes is still “untouched by corruption” and which, he hopes, will provide the answers he needs to survive in the modern world. Here he encounters two archetypal old men. The first, who is studying the Bible, appeals to the Victim to join him, but it seems that the old man can only live “underground,” and the Victim seeks a more open kind of emotional fulfillment. Then he encounters the second old man, who, he joyfully notes, lives above ground. Once again, however, his hopes of penetrating the mystery of life evaporate: When the man begins speaking, he can only utter propagandistic formulas and denunciations. In despair, the Victim-narrator soars to the moon, where he hears a voice speak about God and the need to feel love and hope in life. Here too, though, the consoling voice cannot be sustained, and it is suddenly replaced by “objects of horror” and a vast, cosmic “mocking smile.” At each turn, Aksyonov’s hero finds his hope demolished by a destructive force that mocks his very idealism. The novel ends with a description of Moscow frozen for an eerie moment in which all of its citizens tremble in a vaguely hopeful anticipation of “the Imminence of an encounter.” Inexorably, however, the moment passes, and “everything started moving again.” As deeply as one would like to believe in substantial change, in progress, in spiritual sustenance, the forces of such change have not yet arrived.

Throughout the novel, and particularly in the last section, Aksyonov accentuates the profound appeal that the message of Christianity can have for people in distress, but his own protagonists seem unable to draw lasting comfort from it. Blind faith alone cannot steel the soul against the heavy weight of the established Soviet order, the mindless dinosaur threatening all in its path.

Aksyonov’s philosophical and ethical explorations in The Burn are serious and complex, and his narrator seems almost apologetic when he acknowledges that Russian writers, unlike European authors, prefer “some heavy, masochistic problem” to probe. Nevertheless, Aksyonov counterbalances his grave musings with a narrative style that dazzles the reader with its verbal inventiveness. In its intricate structure and fragmented flights of fancy The Burn looks back to earlier examples of Russian modernism, such as Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916), while reflecting a tendency toward verbal experimentation in contemporary unofficial Soviet literature, as in such works as Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line (1980). Aksyonov’s predilection for verbal play places him in the long tradition of such writers as Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Vladimir Nabokov, and this novel reflects especially well his gift for skillful manipulation of contemporary slang, occupational jargon, and parodies of the formulas of bureaucratic speech. Many of the characters’ names in the novel carry suggestive meaning. The protagonists’ patronymic—Apollinarievich—recalls the French avant-garde writer Guillaume Apollinaire as well as the Greek god Apollo, while the name given a cloakroom guard—Beriya Yagodovich Gribochuyev—is made up of the surnames of two notorious heads of the Soviet secret police and the surname of a favored poet during Stalin’s regime (Nikolai Gribachev).

Literary allusions abound in The Burn. Stimulated by the heady atmosphere of cultural liberalization in the 1960’s, Aksyonov’s characters mention and quote such contemporary writers as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vysotsky (who appears as a character in the novel), and Joseph Brodsky. Aksyonov even makes reference to his own work, mentioning the novel Ticket to the Stars, which brought him widespread fame upon its publication in 1961. The protagonists also speak of earlier masters of lyric expression, such as Aleksandr Blok (whose handling of symbolic female figures has much in common with Aksyonov’s), Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam. On the other hand, Aksyonov reveals his distaste for certain cultural products: literature written to meet the demands of the Soviet establishment, and the debasement of literature in the West, where classics are transformed into shallow film projects (one character wants to cast John Lennon as Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment).

Challenged with the difficult task of rendering Aksyonov’s irrepressible verbal play into English, translator Michael Glenny has done a creditable job in reproducing the tone and sense of The Burn. Although his translation moderates somewhat the pyrotechnic flair of the original, he had to confront some unusual problems in trying to convey the effect Aksyonov’s prose has on a reader of Russian. Certain words and phrases used by Aksyonov’s main characters are unmistakably Western in origin (for example, “playboy”), and for a Russian reader they create a striking impression of novelty and “hipness.” For an English-language reader, these same words seem more neutral or routine. As if to compensate for the dilution of Aksyonov’s rich stylizations, Glenny has introduced some verbal tricks of his own. Whereas an American named Patrick Thunderjet is identified in the Russian text as a “professor-kremlinolog” (literally, a “professor-Kremlinologist”), Glenny’s translation turns him into a “professor of Kremlinology (or criminology—what’s the difference?).” Glenny’s translation may lack some of the sparkling texture of Aksyonov’s original, but the author’s design emerges nevertheless.

The Burn displays a remarkable fusion of the comic and the serious, the irrational and the real. The way in which Aksyonov allows his sober vision of personal longing and human doubt to shine through an elaborate filter of freewheeling verbal fantasy makes this work perhaps the most compelling novel of his career.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 144

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