Themes and Meanings

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The Burn is Aksyonov’s chronicle of his generation in the nightmarish context of twentieth century Russian history. How did the bright hopes of the early post-Stalin years fade into the repressive mediocrity of the Brezhnev era? Aksyonov holds that the Russian intelligentsia itself, past and present, is responsible. It failed to provide moral leadership against tyrannical perversions of its philosophical and political ideals. Not only has the intelligentsia betrayed the people but it has also betrayed itself. Betrayal is a central theme of The Burn. Not only is each of the heroes betrayed by an old friend, but also each of them betrays himself by withdrawing into hedonism rather than actively resisting evil. Aksyonov’s answer to the moral debacle of his generation is found in the words of Sanya Gurchenko. “Christianity is like a breakthrough into space, that most courageous and far-reaching spurt toward the third model.” Aksyonov’s collective hero perhaps pervertedly echoes this thought when in a state of drunken paranoia he leaps to his death thinking that he is a truth-seeking astronaut. The intelligentsia has again failed to confront evil, leaving it to Gurchenko who, whatever his origins, is not a member of that group. Nor is the materialistic Western intelligentsia a suitable moral model for the Soviet Union. Patrick Thunderjet, the Western equivalent of the Soviet collective hero, is also spiritually bankrupt. It is perhaps not too farfetched to see the belief systems Aksyonov associates with East and West respectively as being the first and second models: Neither is satisfactory. Answers must be sought in the third model.

Aksyonov’s long, complex, and seemingly chaotic novel falls into three “books,” which might be respectively characterized as drunken spree (“The Men’s Club”), sobriety and flashbacks (“Five in Solitary”), and alcoholic hallucinations and death (“The Victim’s Last Adventure”). The first book covers a few days circa 1970; the second and third a short period circa 1973. The form of the narrative is complex. Much of it is narrated from a perspective of drunkenness and even alcoholic dementia. The chaotic time line is further fractured by both momentary and extended flashbacks. The text is spangled with sections of surreal poetry mimicking jazz improvisations.Numerous allusions to Russian history and literature and bits of Soviet realia make The Burn a difficult but rewarding work for many readers. The novel’s seeming chaos is in fact cogently ordered by the religious mythology that underlies its events.

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