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The Burn by Vasily Aksyonov
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The Burn (1980)

by Vasily Aksyonov

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It was tough to get into this book, and at about the 100 page point I considered stopping altogether, thinking that in my review I would have to speculate on the amount of vodka Aksenov consumed in writing it. However, I kept at it, and let go of trying to pin things down and fully understand everything I was reading, and let it flow instead. At around page 200 I was glad I did, because a framework started to emerge through the haze, and because the book was so insightful into Soviet life under Stalin and in the generations which followed.

Written in 1980, near the end of the Soviet Union, Aksenov provides a glimpse into some of the horrors of Magadan, one of Stalin’s prison camps that that he and his mother had been exiled to in real life, and his cynicism with the realities of Moscow in the present. At the same time, however, it also reflects his optimism in the Russian people (the “enigmatic Russian soul with an innate potential reserve of goodness”), and a glimpse into change for the future. It’s a unique voice, and Aksenov writes in an ambitious, fantastic way – references to Russian history and the West abound, and the style is one of the beat poets, Joseph Heller, or Thomas Pynchon. The plot is nonlinear, and large portions of it are dream sequences, or perhaps not, depending on your interpretation.

My take on what it’s “about”: a young boy named Tolya von Steinbeck sees his mother arrested and taken to the Magadan, a part of the Dalstroy organization of forced labor which existed in the Soviet Union under Stalin from 1932-1953. The events of his childhood are traumatic and include torture and rape. He grows up not only prone to abusing alcohol, but with mental health problems. He spawns five alter egos in his mind – a laser scientist, sculptor, writer, surgeon, and saxophone player, all with the same patronymic as his, Apollinarievich. He (and they), struggle against repression in the Soviet Union of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and Soviet aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1968. There two “beady eyes” of the prison officer and sadist Chepstov are a recurring theme, and represent the constant feeling of surveillance and a reminder of the cruelty of the Soviet government.

Aside from the difficulty of getting into the book, my only knock against it is that it seemed misogynistic to me. There is a steady stream of commentary about women’s bodies and descriptions of “whores” associated with many (most?) of the female characters in the book. I’m all for the sex (ahem) but there is a cheapness and immaturity in the many varieties that appear througout that is off putting. And at its worst, it has a father raping his daughter, and the daughter immediately having a couple of orgasms in the process (please…). The father justifies it to the girl by revealing to her that he’s actually not her biological father, but ughhhh. There’s also a father who lusts after his daughter’s body and gets sexual pleasure out of spanking her, hoping she’ll have a D on her report card so that he’ll have a reason to. Maybe it’s brazenly honest in the sense that it happens, and those are small segments of a giant, ambitious book, so I don’t judge the whole because of these incest scenes per se, but wonder if a woman would dislike the book for its overall attitude towards women, and pass that along as a caution.

Quotes:
On fashion in Russia (in my experience, still true!):
“She wears Italian shoes at sixty rubles a pair, and yet only makes eighty rubles a month. The riddle of these little lab assistants. A monthly salary of eighty, but they can buy shoes at sixty. One of the great mysteries in Moscow.”

On the world of poets:
“Then we admitted that it was this world, the world of calm little loners, the world of the poets, that was the true world, and that the other one, huge and juicy as a swollen blister, was false, ephemeral, and already reeking of decay.”

On the ‘split world’ under communism:
“The mob followed them into the middle of Red Square, but stopped there. This marked the beginning of the zone of influence emanating from the sacred buildings of the Kremlin, and to enter this zone with thoughts of commerce on one’s mind would have been sacrilege. Even the children in the mob knew the difference between GUM on one side of the square and the Kremlin on the other.”

And:
“When returning home, for instance, from Japan via Poland after a three-month voyage in foreign seas you suddenly saw the crosses of the Kremlin merging in unnatural but somehow unbreakable union with the symbols of atheism, and you were seized by a spasm of patriotism, for you were looking at the lips and nipples of your Motherland, which still, despite a dreary coating of propagandist stucco, gave off the smell of milk.”

On Russian (and American) idealism:
“All you Russians have this barbaric, profoundly provincial feeling about your country. You’re always pretending to be some sort of shield for Europe, always droning on about the same old messianic idea. It’s all nonsense! There’s no such thing as the ‘mysterious Slav soul,’ just as there’s nothing left of the ‘great American dream’ in today’s world either. There are just two monstrous octopuses, two gigantic bags of half-dead protoplasm, which can only react to external stimuli in two ways: by contradiction or by absorption. And it finds absorption, of course, much more pleasant than contraction.”

On Russia vs. Europe; this after the author says that “it is characteristic of any serious Russian book to tackle serious problems”:
“In Europe there are frivolous democracies with mild climates, where an intellectual spends his life flitting from a dentist’s drill to the wheel of a Citroen, from a computer to an espresso bar, from the conductor’s podium to a woman’s bed, and where literature is something almost as refined, witty, and useful as a silver dish of oysters laid out on brown seaweed and garnished with cracked ice.
Russia, with its six-month winter, its tsarism, Marxism, and Stalinism, is not like that. What we like is some heavy, masochistic problem, which we can prod with a tired, exhausted, not very clean but very honest finger. That is what we really need, and it is not our fault.
Not our fault? Really? But who let the genie out of the bottle, who cut themselves off from the people, who groveled before the people, who grew fat on the backs of the people, who let the Tatars into the city, invited the Varangians to come and rule over them, licked the boots of Europe, isolated themselves from Europe, struggled madly against the government, submitted obediently to dim-witted dictators? We did all that – we, the Russian intelligentsia.”

And this:
“It’s always like that in Russia. Even the most mediocre modernist in the arts, an admirer of everything in the West, who damns everything home-grown, is secretly convinced in his heart of hearts that the world’s greatest talent will emerge from Russia, and it only has to be nurtured for it to burst forth and astonish the whole world no less than the first atomic mushroom cloud or ballistic missile.”

On food (I thought this was funny but ate far better over there):
“…we bought some food at the market and sat down cross-legged under the glass wall of the supermarket to enjoy our aristocratic breakfast. We spiked the beer with pepper vodka and orange liqueur. Between drinks we ate pieces of a strange, soapy, deep-water fish and Roquefort cheese, that putrid, shit-tasting dropout from the otherwise wholesome but dull family of Soviet cheeses, and little ‘hunter’ sausages, stuffed with the revolting lard used by the Consumers’ Union, and semiprocessed kidneys made from Indian poultry, and strawberry mousse made of Rumanian oil.”

Lastly on a memorable night:
“That night was a very special night in my life, a night like a beacon. After such a night you could go into the wastes of Siberia, you could even go to prison, but the glow of that night would continue to brighten your life for a long time.”

And on the other hand:
“What are they worth, those blurred, faded nights, days, and evenings of ours? What indeed are our blurred, faded memories worth at all? What price our whole past life? And did it ever happen at all if we remember so little about it?” ( )
1 vote gbill | Dec 22, 2013 |
And I thought this was just some book about stilyagi. Oh sure, jazz is an intermittent theme, and more importantly a stylistic touchstone--grunting jazz, howling jazz, stripped of its stifling mythology and infusing the many textual repetitions and elaborations and doublings-back as well as the bloody poetry with which Aksyonov represents the wordless horn solos of Samsik Apollinarievich Sabler. All our protigoni are Apollinarieviches--the scientist Kunitser, the writer Pantelei, the sculptor Khvastishchev, and the surgeon and mystic Malkolmov--all bestriding colossi--except one, the author-analogue Tolya (multiply execrated, jew and bourgeois and german and sissy and dreamer and camp-rat, raised like Aksyonov by a mom in the gulag)--but the secret is that all these Apollonians are corroding and all their arts, like Samsik's jazz, are just the efflorescence of desperation, the sound that escapes a human being squeezed to death.

Sounds grim? Not at all! Where Aksyonov convinces me most of his genius is where I compare him to whom I take to be his nearest capitalist analogue, Thomas Pynchon--if Pynchon's thing was drinking till he was fucking till he was laughing till he was weeping rather than wearing a bag on his head, he could take part in a radiator vodka threesome with Aksyonov and Dylan Thomas. Nobody will ever say Soviet Russians didn't know how to have fun in unpromising circumstances after reading this. I like the jokes refracted: the "those who write on bathroom walls / roll their shit in little balls" ditty that I know from Kurt Vonnegut shows up here like a weird little piece of home; mercenaries drinking "methylated and piss" ( you dilute it so it doesn't kill you) and roaring around the early pages like a sketch comedy bit jumping its rails and going oh so very right; the scene after that where everyone's a fake identity or a KGB agent trying to figure out if everyone else is speaking a code or a joke or what and what the punchline is. This book is funny.

Poetry with lines like "beloved academician, shall I never, never taste your rod?" is funny. Slapstick with armoured vehicles is always funny. Let's go back to the mercenaries for a minute: at first I thought I was gonna interpret them in this boring mythemic way as like Warren Zevon characters, but I think for Aksyonov they're more than that--the mercenary ethic is the most available counterstance to the shitmix of totalitarian fear, the Marxist promise of a better world, and the sick certainty of a mundane, wasted life that reduces more than one character in this book to tears of despair at their failure to decolonize themselves from the need to help build what they all know is a lie. That is Aksyonov at his most sincere, I think.

But the mercenaries are like a tonic for that--supersoldier tough, in it for themselves only, and rolling around the world (and through time? Did the dust clear on a scene from the Thirty' Years' War somewhere in there?) kicking the shit out of everybody. When Kunitser, or is it Pantelei and the very Pynchonian American Patrick Thunderjet encounter them in Katanga and in a weird kind of transubstantiation, take their souls or whatever, it's sort of a torch that gets passed: from here on in what we're gonna see is the efforts of a bunch of careening geniuses to do what they want and make the fuckers pay. I've gotten used to thinking of the elevation of neoliberal self-actualization to a moral eschatology the preserve of only a few ex-Ostbloc lights who aren't implicated in the selfish the way we are: Vaclav Havel, Bulgakov. Perhaps Aksyonov belongs in that crowd, but if so, my god, he brings an extra-grimy brand of ostraenie to maintain an inch of breathing room between himself and coca-cola. He makes Moscow before the Brezhnev crackdown seem like the most out-of-control hipster artist alcoholic killer party of all. Dream of Europe. Punch you in the kidney.

Without posturing, though--most of the violence in the book is clumsy tension release, makes its proponents look goofy. The real violence and hatred come out in the sex and the longing. There was that thing going around from the Good Men Project or whatever about how men are hounds because they get taught that sex is the only way they can be physically tender, touch and be touched. I dunno if that's true in general, but it's certainly true for the Russians in this book. Everybody's got a little Tolya somewhere inside--just about the only redemption to be found comes from the single ever-shifting ever-squirming fountain-of-blood-in-the-shape-of-a-girl that goes by Masha with the perfect midriff and Nina with the jutting goat-breasts and Alisa with the lines of mortality in her neck. Inter alia. Wanting to be saved by loving, and loving by fucking, unites the fresh youth and the cynic intellectuals and the hockey thugs Alik and Kim and the monstrous Stalinist holdover Cheptsov. When that doesn't work, occasionally Jesus flits in incongruously only to let himself out a minute later, but mostly there is booze. The one scene where political revolution gets a look in as a source of meaning is one of the most awkward and sad in the book.

So I guess I think this is about the failure of dreams and how each of those dreams dissected turns out to have been just the dream of having a life worth the ticket. And what we get instead: "I'll tell you about the thought that didn't want to lie and the tongue that told lies about the thought." "A new shattering form of jazz that would rock both America and Poland back on their heels." You cringe with sincerity and sympathy. But lest it get all too downtrodden, there is a last epilogic flight on the town, one that starts out in a kind of weird stilted afterlifey version of Paris with cutout Hemingway and then takes off into Margarita-on-her-broomstick territory, only with less joy and more plain relief. A weirding wording way and and a frantic need for there to be something inimitably beautiful waiting for you if you run or write or blow or drink long enough, and the inkling that it won't dull the existential pain quite enough. This book is full of goddamn fucking heroes for trying though. ( )
5 vote MeditationesMartini | Nov 4, 2013 |
I see a couple of other readers gave this book good star ratings, but I'm afraid it hasn't worked for me. I think I get it: the often phantasmagoric accountings of the lives of intellectuals and others within the stultifying world of Soviet socialism; the pulse of life that one saw in the avenues taken to relieve the frustrations of a system that at best discouraged innovation or non-conformity, and at worst crushed it; the ironies and the cynicism that were required to live within the system but not be part of, or surrender to, it; the mean, nasty, brutish lives that many led. But it quickly became too much of a sameness for me.
1 vote John | Feb 20, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vasily Aksyonovprimary authorall editionscalculated
Glenny, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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