The Burn

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 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...

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