Vassily Aksyonov Long Fiction Analysis
The major theme in Vassily Aksyonov’s fiction is the nature and fate of the Soviet Union and the role of Aksyonov’s generation in trying to reshape the nation after the death of Stalin. His works chronicle these years first from the optimistic perspective of a generation on the rise, confident that a new day has dawned, then from the perspective of growing doubt, and finally in a mood of despair.
A Ticket to the Stars
A Ticket to the Stars is a landmark book that became the rallying point for the new generation. The young people it portrays and those whom it inspired when it appeared took the name “star boys” as their banner. Conservatives of the older generation used the name as a term of condemnation. The story begins in the early summer in Moscow, circa 1960. Three friends who have just finished high school are hanging out in the courtyard of their apartment building. The neighbors look askance at their clothes and the music blaring from their tape recorder. All three are from professional families, and all are headed for college and careers in accord with the expectations of society and the wishes of their families. Dimka Denisov, the ringleader, confides to his older brother Victor that he and his friends have decided to kick over the traces, defy their parents, and head for the Baltic seacoast for the summer, and perhaps longer.
Victor, who narrates parts of the story, is twenty-eight, a doctoral candidate in space medicine. A model son, a scholarship student, he looks with affection but mild alarm at his aimless younger brother and his friends. Victor’s goal in life is represented by the night view from his bedroom window, from which he can see a small rectangle of sky dotted by stars. The sight reminds him of a tram ticket punched with star-shaped holes.
The teenagers pass their summer on the beach. Among their haunts is a restaurant bar with a star-painted ceiling. As their money disappears, they join an Estonian collective fishing enterprise. The young Muscovites at first find their companions crude and the work difficult, but at length they begin to take pride in the endeavor. Victor, now on the verge of a brilliant career, comes to visit Dimka, who is still wary of a “programmed” future. Suddenly called back to Moscow, Victor is killed in a plane crash. After the funeral, Dimka lies on Victor’s bed and sees for the first time “the starry ticket.” It is now his ticket to the stars, but where will it take him?
At the time A Ticket to the Stars was published, Soviet readers, unlike their Western counterparts, were not accustomed to sympathetic accounts of youthful alienation. Even though the story has a reassuring ending, readers were shocked by the novel’s racy language and its young heroes’ flippant attitude toward authority.
The Steel Bird
The Steel Bird, written in 1965 but not published until 1977, marks a crucial turning point in Aksyonov’s writing both stylistically and thematically. His earlier novels are stylistically within the limits of realism, and their themes are more social than political. The young heroes, whose rebellion is against cant and excessive conformity, ultimately affirm the values of a socialist society. The Steel Bird is a political allegory in a modernist stylistic framework. In the spring of 1948, an odious creature named Popenkov (who subsequently proves to be part human and part mechanical bird) presents himself at a large, decaying Moscow apartment building and begs a corner in the entry-hall elevator. As the years pass, the creature expands his domain and enlists the residents in an illegal fake antique tapestry business. Eventually the tenants, a diverse cross section of Soviet society, are reduced to entering the building through a cramped back door.
The 1960’s arrive. Soviet life has changed for the better. The residents of the older generation are retired, and their children are making their mark as leaders of a cultural revolution. The apartment building, weakened by age and Popenkov’s constant remodeling, is on the verge of collapse. The Steel Bird nevertheless decides that for the convenience of his nocturnal flights the elevator should be extended through the roof. Seeing their home in danger, the residents finally rise. A coalition of worker-tenants and the young cultural leaders confront the Steel Bird on the roof, but as the residents drive off his minions, the building starts to crack. The building collapses, but all the residents are saved and moved to a splendid new building, while the Steel Bird remains perched atop the old elevator shaft. Months later, as bulldozers start to clear the rubble, Popenkov slowly flies off. The spirit of Stalinism departs, but it may return at any time.
The story, told by means of third-personnarrative, eyewitness accounts, official reports, interludes of poetry, and authorial asides, is punctuated by the Stalinist house manager’s cornet improvisations, thus echoing the story’s themes. The Steel Bird increasingly lapses into using an autistic bird language.
The Burn, written in the post-Czech invasion years (1969-1975), presents a far bleaker stage in the evolution of Aksyonov’s views. The events of The Burn—a long, complex, often hallucinatory novel—are perceived through the alcoholic haze that is the response of the intelligentsia to the demise of their hopes for a new Russia. The novel features five more or less interchangeable heroes—or rather antiheroes—all members of Aksyonov’s generation, all liberals, all superstars in their professions. Kunitser is a physicist; Sabler, a jazz saxophonist; Khvastishchev, a sculptor; Malkolmov, a physician; and Pantelei, a writer whose past resembles that of author Aksyonov. Although the men have certain almost identical and seemingly concurrent experiences, they lead independent existences. The narrative focus alternates among them, and on occasion they change identities. Most remarkably, they share flashbacks to a single, common childhood, when they were Tolya von Steinbock.
The heroes have retreated before a renascent (but much milder) Stalinism, withdrawing into their creative work, sex, and alcohol. On the evening of the first day portrayed in the novel, they individually encounter an old friend, Patrick Thunderjet, a visiting Anglo-American who is obviously their Western counterpart. The day’s drinking expands into a binge that takes the collective hero, a friend, and Thunderjet through a set of bizarre experiences...
(The entire section is 2701 words.)