WELL INTO his massive novel The Burn, Vassily Aksyonov pauses to don the earnest mask of Socialist Novelist, announcing that "it is characteristic of any serious Russian book to tackle serious problems," that Russia "with its six-month winter, its tsarism, Marxism, and Stalinism" likes nothing more than "some heavy, masochistic problem, which we can prod with a tired, exhausted, not very clean but very honest, finger." In truth, it is hard to imagine a problem more serious than that which Aksyonov says with mock solemnity he "aspires to penetrate with extraordinary profundity."
That problem might as well be posed in terms of Aksyonov's life, since The Burn in part is fictionalized autobiography. In the name of the social system in which his parents believed passionately, Aksyonov was taken from his mother at age 5 and placed in a state orphanage because both parents were arrested for "crimes against the state." Ten years later Aksyonov was restored to his mother, now freed but in exile, in the death-camp headquarters town of Magadan; a circumscribed parody of family life continued there for a few months, until the mother was rearrested, now without even pretense of a charge, and Aksyonov once again was orphaned.
In part the ''very honest finger" of The Burn plucks at that scab, questioning the meaning of a state which in the name of public good caused such an incalculable quantity of private misery; surely, for all the smallness of scale, there still can be no better image of that misery than the child Aksyonov, whose mother "was being taken away to an unknown place, for an unknown reason, and for an unknown length of time."
The problem though is far larger than a simple exposition of "the evils of communism," just as The Burn is far more than "just another" dissident book, because Aksyonov also takes up a question which we in the West have refused to ponder -- why for all its manifest evils does the Soviet Union continue to function? It is in attempting to answer that question that Aksyonov's book draws its greatest power, trying to show why (as he writes of that fictionalized mother) "despite two years in isolation for 'political' offenses and eight years in the Kolyma camps, she still thought like a Soviet person."
Part of the reason is clear in Aksyonov's sobering portrait of Magadan, 1949, when the columns of prisoners being herded behind barbed wire by the thousands were no more than simple scenery for 16-year old Tolya Bokov, so commonplace as to be invisible, when nothing was more important than to be a Komsomol, a good student, a basketball star worthy of the attention of the "queen" of Magadan High, the daughter of the local camp commander. Stalin then had the Soviet Union so tightly sealed that its citizens no more questioned the system than they would gravity or the rising of the moon.
Still, even in Magadan of 1949 there were cracks, which Aksyonov catches neatly in the image of the war-booty film Stagecoach, re-titled in Russian and given a short foreword to explain how the film showed the struggle of the Indians to repel American colonialism; "For the seventh time Tolya . . . had come to see how the Ringo Kid walked across the screen . . . he could easily see the film seventy times . . . he felt a little like the Ringo Kid himself." Then Stalin died, Khrushchev buried him, and that first whiff of the Ringo Kid became the giddy intoxication that Russia was in the incredible days between Khrushchev and Czechoslovakia.
IT IS THIS RUSSIA which captured the American imagination, since in a crazy way it was far freer than anything in the West, a five-year-long bash when one had only to be clever, creative, in some way gifted, for life to become glorious. That Russia gave us Brodsky, Baryshnikov, Neizvestny, Akhmadulina, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Aksyonov's mother Eugenia Ginzburg, and Aksyonov himself, who with those and thousands of other poets, novelists, painters, actors, dancers, directors, and the gilded youth of Muscovy drank, smoked, and talked away the decade; as Aksyonov writes, "They were all poor and unknown, but later they suddenly became rich and famous." Providing all the pleasures of hedonism with the self- satisfaction of being morally correct, intellectually active, and in the center of the world's eye, that Russia cannot fail to reduce an American intellectual to envy, which Aksyonov's sexy, sodden, amusing descriptions only make the greener.
That idyll ended when the tanks entered Prague, and all the bright talk proved impotent, empty; the golden youth collapsed on itself, some becoming careerists, some the dissident-du-jour in the West, while the majority subsided into a morose parody of the freer years before. Aksyonov seems throughout The Burn to keep asking himself, why were we so weak, so unlike what we dreamed we were?
It is a question so bitter that Aksyonov can answer it fully only by splitting his Tolya into five possible adults, a scientist, a writer, a doctor, a sculptor, and a jazz saxophonist; pursuing five separate paths, for five sets of reasons, all of the possible Tolyas still come to feel what the writer among them (and so presumably the closest to Aksyonov) calls "shame and anguish. Nonentities, misfits, degenerates that we are, we're always going to the wrong place, flying to the wrong destination, slithering into the slough of despond." Each in his own way pursues Alisa, a vision of perfect maidenhood formed in Tolya's youth in Magadan, and each finally gains her, only to learn that Alisa is a depraved, unfaithful whore.
Nor is it an accident that the original Alisa was western, half Polish, half English. The year 1968 proved the West to be every bit as impotent as the intelligentsia of Moscow, able to offer world culture nothing more substantial than Kents and blue jeans, without even the decency of drunken confession of that weakness. This distinction of East from West may seem small, but to Aksyonov (and the rest of Russian intellectuals) it is crucial, making us seem naive, superficial, and dangerously suicidal; equally it explains why, with all recognition of the irony that it can be published only in the West, The Burn nevertheless is also a celebration of Russia, of Russian culture and art.
Unfortunately, that may also be the weakest feature of the novel since Aksyonov is tormented by the ghosts of the Russian un-realists, Nabokov, Gogol, Blok, Bely, and even the younger Aksyonov. His text is allusive, paronomastic, rhythmic, convoluted, and self-referential, laced with slang, profanity, and all manner of language which tends to obscure what Aksyonov is trying to say. Surely part of the problem is that this is translation; for all the merits of Michael Glenny's fine work (he earlier gave us Bulgakov), nothing sounds clunkier than translation of teen-age slang. Even in the original though, Aksyonov's attempt to raise the story of his generation to the level of legend has a disconcerting tendency to loom ponderously over the border of the bathetic, even of the ridiculous.
Anad yet, isn't that ultimately the charm, the attraction of Russia? Despite the often ludicrous nature of the results, what Russian culture attempts to achieve is never less than the monumental, the titanic, while the effort is ever total, sincere, and spiced with a lot of good-hearted huffing and puffing. As Aksyonov writes:
"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 has only to be nurtured for it to burst forth and astonish the whole world no less than the first atomic mushroom cloud or ballistic missile."
In all honesty, The Burn cannot be said to be "astonishing," at least not in that sense, but it does show magnificently why, for all its faults, Russia nourishes hopes of this ferocity, and why we are obliged to watch a novelist like Vassily Aksyonov with the closest of attention. CAPTION: Picture, Vassily Aksyonov. Photo copyright (c) by Yasha Sklansky Madcap in Moscow