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1970s Russia torn apart,
This review is from: The Burn (Abacus Books) (Paperback)'The Burn' opens with a quote that reads 'only a lout can scoff at Russian life'. By this standard 'The Burn' is 500 pages of pure loutery. Aksyonov's brilliant book tears post-Stalinist Russia to shreds with breathtaking savagery. It is funny and angry, and devastatingly withering. 'The Burn' is soviet Russia's 'Ulysses', but whereas Joyce's book both eulogised and condemned Ireland, Aksyonov's is unrelenting in its scorn of Russia and its people.
It is the story of Tolya von Steinbock, a Russian child of Jewish European parents who is forced to grow up apart from parents labelled as undesirables. As a child he wants nothing more than to lose his Jewish heritage and become a good communist, and cannot understand why he is treated like an 'enemy of he people'. All this is set in Stalinist Russia, before the 'Great Thaw' in which Stalinism was renounced. von Steinbock's adulthood begins after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which had exposed the 'Great Thaw' as a sham and Stalinism as being alive and well. Now there are five von Steinbocks, all sharing the patronym 'Apollinarievich', each of which represents a different group within Soviet society (scientist, writer, doctor, sculptor, musician). Their cynicism and disillusionment is obvious in contrast with the young von Steinbock's naivety, as the fate of the arts and sciences in 1970s USSR is examined through each character. The USSR of the 'Apollinarieviches' is a grotesque and frightening parody of communism, corrupt and degenerate, and nothing to do with the country the young von Steinbock wanted to be a part of.
The whole book is incredibly surreal, and, I must admit, nearly lost me early on as 'Apollinarieviches' flitted in and out interchangeably, leaving me wondering who was who exactly, and where von Steinbock fitted in. However, I soon became comfortable with Aksyonov's style and was wholly swept along with the book. It is difficult to follow in places, and dances maddeningly around a surreal canvas of Russian life, but this style ultimately blends with the very real madness of 1970s USSR to create a crazy, grotesque, bleak, fairy tale country. It reminded me in places of 'Catch-22', although Aksyonov's world is even more nonsensical than Heller's, and not quite as funny. However, like Heller, Aksyonov can also write with real emotion, such as the meeting between the adult surgeon von Steinbock and Chepstov, the man who oppressed the von Steinbocks when Tolya was young. These passages are painful and visceral, yet as surreal as the rest. This is a mark of a great writer.
'The Burn' is an incredible book, and difficult to sum up in a short review. It is a difficult read, like 'Ulysses' meets 'Catch-22' in Soviet Russia. The surrealism will leave many dazed and confused, and the grotesque imagery of a corrupt and sexually degenerate USSR will not be to everyone's taste. However, Aksyonov's book is angry and scathing like no other, yet retains the lucidity to deconstruct 1970s Soviet life in a touching, funny and accessible way. It is this blend of madness, anger and sadness that made 'The Burn' one of the most surprising and distinctive books I have ever read.