THE BURN by Vassily Aksyonov
Kirkus Star


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Aksyonov's magnum opus--and quite something: shaggy, surrealist, knowingly comic, painful, and always utterly carbonated. Is there a plot here? Well, yes and no. Aksyonov (The Steel Bird, The Island of Crimea) offers a narrator/hero named Tolya von Steinbock--a quasi-autobiographical figure who is variously metamorphosed into a scientist, a jazz musician, a sculptor, a writer, a doctor. Through this flexible alter ego, then, Aksyonov can bring in everything--starting with memories of his own childhood in the Siberian prison-camp town of Magadan. (The fictionalized material here is also, more directly, dramatized in the majestic non-fiction Within the Whirlwind--by Aksyonov's mother Eugenia Ginzburg.) As a little boy, Tolya sees his mother first released and then re-arrested, with both of them humiliated by a swinish KGB agent named Cheptsov. So, throughout this crazy-quilt, freeform novel, there's a special, sturdy, unifying thread: how the hero keeps crossing paths with the horrible sadist Cheptsov--and how, until the final pages, he shows him (by design or destiny) a tireless comic charity. The hero also has a romantic quest--in his yearning hunt for the desirable and much-cossetted Alisa, mistress to many. And, while much of Aksyonov's material here is rapier-like and satiric, with generous bop runs of improvised scorn and deflation, he also has a Cervantes-ian soul: the narrator/hero's alter egos interact with every sort of human condition--the drunk and the evil, the brilliant and the addled and the randy. (There are shoeless, drunken careenings through Moscow nights with an amusing, debauched Oxford professor named Patrick Thunderjet.) Above all, however, what makes this epic so distinctive is perhaps the fact that, before leaving Russia, Aksyonov was in an almost unique position--as a kind of generational bellwether who was given a certain free rein, a safety valve for otherwise stodgy Soviet culture. Thus, Aksyonov knows not only the sorrows and absurdities of dissenting intellectuals but also the ridiculousness of the KGB bureaucracy--as in this excerpt from a spy's ""report"": ""Academician rushed up to me and immediately told me three ambiguous political jokes: the 'eyebrows' joke (No. 1794/0040), the 'meat' joke (No. 8805/1147), and the 'computer' joke (No. 9564/2086)."" Likewise, he can evoke both the ersatz freedom given certain higher-ups (exit visas to European capitals, etc.) and the more general, bovine public apathy: ""Unanimous Approval said nothing, staring at us with looks that were uncomprehending, slightly glum but mostly quite calm."" Ultimately, then, Aksyonov uses all his knowledge and talent and energy to outline the irrepressibly fluorescent strain of Russian spiritual messiness--still alive today despite all sorts of compromise and even murder: there's an urban joy to this work akin to that of Saul Bellow at his best. And once you've accepted Aksyonov's total lack of interest in linear--or even likely--narrative, you'll read with great delight a grand book whose effervescence is only deepened by its sadness, its redeeming lack of bitterness.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Random House (co-published with Houghton Mifflin)